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Date Title (Scripture Reference)
March 31, 2019 Fasting from the Fear of Righteousness
(Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When I was young my brothers and I had a dog named Stubby. I know that was a weird name for a dog, but he had a stubby tail and he was named before we got him. For the most part Stubby was a good dog. He was friendly and fun to play with. But Stubby had his faults. He liked to chew things. He would chew our tennis shoes. He chewed our socks. Once he even chewed my English book from school. I had to tell my teacher, “My dog ate my homework!”

The thing about Stubby was that he wasn’t very sneaky. He knew when he had done something wrong and his whole body showed it. When I would come home from school, he would usually jump up and down and make a fuss. But sometimes when I came home, he wouldn’t great me with a happy bark. Rather, his whole body would kind of curl up, he would drop his head down, his ears would droop, and he would try to slink off to some corner or hide behind some chair. It was then that I knew that I needed to search through the house to find what he had chewed up. When he shrugged his shoulders and slinked around, I knew he had been naughty.

Jesus once told a story to show us what God is like. Once, he said, there was a son who took half of his father’s money and then moved away. The son spent all of his father’s money on parties and crazy living. But one day he ran out of money. Soon he was hungry and could only find the worst of jobs feeding pigs. He then thought that even his father’s servants did better than him, so he decided to go home and to ask his father to treat him not like a son, but like a servant. He sort of came home with his shoulders slumped and his head down because he knew he had been very naughty. But when his father saw him from a long way off, he ran out to meet him and he gave him a big hug. And then he threw a huge party to welcome his son home.

Sometimes we feel like that son, or like my dog Stubby. We shrug our shoulders over and hang our heads because we know that we have done something wrong. But God is always like that father. He is waiting for us to come home. He is waiting to forgive us and to wrap us up in a great be hug.
[End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

It is that time of year when we sing that classic American folk hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This.” While the hymn celebrates God’s wondrous love for us shown in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, I wonder if we form our image of God more from the second stanza: “When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down, when I was sinking down, sinking down; when I was sinking down beneath God's righteous frown.” When we think of God and particularly the righteousness of God, do we imagine his righteous frown? Do we sink down under the weight God’s righteousness until our shoulders become stooped and our heads hang low? Do we fear the righteousness of God?

Some Pharisees and teachers of the law watch as a number of tax collectors and sinners gather around Jesus to listen to him. They mutter to one another, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” As I mentioned last week, we who live in a guilt based culture immediately assume that these three parables in Luke are about sin and guilt. We think our assumptions are confirmed when Jesus tells a story about a lost sheep and concludes, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” And then a story about a son who wishes his father dead, takes his inheritance, moves to a Gentiles country and wastes his money on wild parties. This is a story about sin.

Or is it? If we approach this story from the assumption that Jesus lived in a shame based culture, things look a bit different. Then we notice that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law shake their heads not at the sinful tax collectors and prostitutes, but at how shameless Jesus is. Doesn’t Jesus realize that he is associating with people who do not act in accord with the ways of God? Does he not realize how unclean and impure these people are? Does he not realize that they tarnish the holiness of God’s people? Why doesn’t he shun them like a truly righteous person?

When we read the third parable we then notice that while the son does plan on confessing his sin to his father, his hope is not the absolution of guilt. He just hopes that the father will allow him to be considered a part of his household. The son comes home with his shoulders stooped and his head bent low in shame, but he doesn’t even hope for any form of forgiveness. He just wants a nine-to-five job, three square meals, and a place to lay his head. And so when the father greets him, we notice that the father never says, “I forgive you,” but he pulls out all the stops to place his son in a position of honor – he calls for the best robe, a ring and sandals. He orders his servants to kill the fattened calf and to invite the neighbors over for a huge celebration. In North America we only honor our children in this way when they get married. Yes, forgiveness is included with this reconciliation, but reconciliation is demonstrated by putting the son who was lost in the highest position of honor.

No wonder the older brother is so mad. His younger brother has done nothing but dishonor their father and bring shame to the family name. And now his father pulls out all the stops and honors him. He, the older son, has been a loyal son honoring his father all this time, but has his father has ever honored him in this way? “Look!” he says to his father, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him.”

With the son’s criticism of the father, Jesus brings the story back to the crux of the matter. The Pharisees and teachers of the law criticize Jesus for consorting with sinners. The older son criticizes his father for welcoming home the prodigal son. They criticize Jesus for being unrighteous. It is a given that the prostitutes and tax-collectors and the prodigal son are unrighteous because of their sinful and shameful behavior. That is not the issue. What is at issue is Jesus’ behavior. What is at issue is the nature of righteous behavior and particularly the righteous behavior of God.

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law are righteous in that they follow the law and keep its commandments. That is a given. That is not at issue. But they also believe that they are righteous by standing in judgment over and ostracizing the unrighteous. They think they are emulating God by looking down on sinners with a righteous frown.

But Jesus says, “Everyone knows a good shepherd will leave the ninety nine sheep to find the one lost sheep. And everyone knows a frugal woman will tear apart her house to find her lost coin. And everyone knows a loving father will wait patiently and longingly for his prodigal son to come home.

We see the righteousness of God most clearly, not in his righteous frown, but in his love. We need not fear the righteousness of God for it is because God is righteous that he goes out like the good shepherd to seek the lost. It is because he is righteous that Jesus draws sinners and tax collectors to him. It is because he is righteous that God waits patiently and longingly for the prodigal child to come home. It is because God is righteous that he celebrates with the angels in heaven when a sinner repents.

And so this begs the question, which son is the lost son? The one who squanders the father’s love or the one who refuses to emulate the father’s love? In the first two parables the shepherd and the woman actively search for that which is lost. In the third parable the father waits for the prodigal to come home, but he goes out to search for the older brother. Because God is righteous, he even seeks out those who think they are righteous as they sit in judgment over others. Because God is righteous, he seeks out those who don’t care about the lost.

So what does it mean to be righteous? Does it mean to follow all the rules like the Pharisees and teachers of the law? Does it mean to shun those who bring shame on God’s people through their sinful lifestyle? No, to be righteous is to emulate the righteousness of God.

Paul makes the nature of God’s righteousness clear in our epistle reading. Paul repeats three truths three times that begin with and flow out of our being “in Christ.”  We thus see a pattern of themes: ABC, ABC, ABC. Theme, or truth A, is that we are in Christ. Theme or truth B, is the means or the how of being in Christ, that God redeems us through the ministry of Jesus. Theme or truth C, is then the purpose: We are in Christ in order to be enlisted into God’s ministry. God’s ministry begins with Christ but now continues in us who are in Christ.

So Paul establishes our life in Christ [Theme A] in verse 17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” He then says how this happens, theme B, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, [and to what purpose? C] and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” Paul then repeats: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ [A], [B: How?] not counting people’s sins against them. [C: Why?] And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. [Repeat, A in Christ] We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. [B: How?] God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, [C: Why?] so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Friends, we need not fear the righteousness of God for we are joined to Christ so that we might become the righteousness of God. We are joined to Christ so that the love of God, the grace of God, the mercy of God, the salvation of God, that is God’s righteousness might be made manifest in us. We become the righteousness of God as we welcome those who are not living according to God’s ways. We become the righteousness of God as we mirror the grace and love of God to others. We become the righteousness of God when we seek out and show God’s love even to those who sit in judgment over others. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

God of compassion, you are slow to anger, and full of mercy,

welcoming sinners who return to you with penitent hearts

and seeking out the hard of heart and the self-righteous.

Receive in your loving embrace all who come home to you.

Seat them at your bountiful table of grace,

that, with all your children,

they may feast with delight

on all that satisfies the hungry heart.

We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our savior,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.

 

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March 24, 2019 Fasting from the Fear of Fruitlessness
(Luke 13:1-9) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted a bike for her birthday. On the morning of her birthday she woke up and ran downstairs, and there in the middle of the living room was a brand new bike. “Do you want me to help you learn how to ride it?” her father asked. “No,” said the little girl. “I can do it myself. You always treat me like a little girl. I am big now and I don ‘t need your help.”

So the little girl put on her helmet and went outside to ride her bike. She climbed on it and began peddling. But before she got more than two feet, she fell down. She got up and tried again. And she fell down.

This went on for quite some time until she noticed an owl sitting in a tree watching her. “What are you looking at, you old buzzard?” the girl asked. “I am not an old buzzard,” the owl replied. “I am an owl and old owls are known to be wise.” “Oh yeah,” the girl said. “Then tell me how to become wise.” “There are four things you need for wisdom,” said the owl. “Four things you need to say: I don’t know. I was wrong. I am sorry. I need help.”[1] Then the owl flew away.

The little girl watched the owl fly away, she shrugged her shoulders and then climbed on her bike. She pushed off and down on the petal and immediately fell to the ground once again. She tried again and again and again. But she could not get more than a few feet before falling down.

After a while, bruised and sore, she came into the house and found her dad. “Dad,” she said. “I don’t know how to ride my bike. I was wrong when I didn’t let you teach me. I am sorry I spoke to you the way I did. I need your help.” Her dad gave her a big hug, told her he forgave her and then went outside with her to teach her how to ride her new bike.

If it is true that we need other people to teach us things and to help us to grow, then it is even more true that we need God to teach us how to become disciples of Jesus. These words are not only good words to gain wisdom, they are words that help us grow to be good disciples of Jesus: I don’t know. I was wrong. I am sorry. I need help.
[End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Are you ever annoyed by this? You are driving down the highway and the cars ahead of you begin slowing down. Soon you are in stop and go traffic. There are no construction signs. The weather is fine. There must be an accident up ahead. You look across the median and watch jealously as the cars opposite speed by. After 15 minutes or so things start picking up but you are confused. You haven’t had to squeeze down into one lane. And then you look across the median and see that there is a traffic accident on the other side of the freeway. The only reason you landed in a traffic jam is because everyone just had to slow down to get a good look at the misfortune of others.

Why do we slow down to look at an accident? Are we really concerned to know if someone is hurt or not? If we are, why don’t we stop? Are we just morbidly fascinated by a deadly crash? Do we pass judgment as we drive by? “I bet someone was texting when that happened.” Or do we slow down and look in order to be thankful that it is not us?

While on his way to Jerusalem some people tell Jesus about some Galileans whom Pilate killed and then he mixed their blood with their sacrifices thus defiling them. Why do these people tell Jesus this story? Jesus assumes that they tell him this in order to make those not involved feel slightly better about themselves. In response Jesus asks. “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Jesus then repeats his message asking them about eighteen people who died when a tower fell on them. “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish.”

That doesn’t quite make sense to me. Is Jesus saying, “Unless you repent, something bad like this will happen to you too”? Unless you repent, you may end up in a heap on the freeway. Unless you repent, you may end up getting hit by a bus. That can’t be what Jesus is saying because he insists that the Galileans were not murdered by Pilate because they were sinners. Their need for repentance was not greater than those standing before Jesus.

Maybe the point is that sin isn’t necessarily the issue. Jesus assumes that the people are pointing out some ne’er to wells who got what they deserved. We know from the story of the blind man in John that misfortune was often attributed to sin. The disciples ask Jesus about the blind man, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). There too Jesus turns the conversation away from sin and tells his disciples that God’s glory will be shown through the blind man.

So if sin isn’t the issue, maybe Jesus isn’t calling the crowds to repent from sin. Maybe he is calling them to repent of something else. To repent means to turn from heading one way and to begin walking in another way. This may include repenting from sin, but it indicates a whole shift in one’s life.

The crowds point to some people who they assume are failures in the religious life of the day. “Look, Jesus, they must have been terrible sinners. What do you make of such failures?” The stories surrounding our text, however, are filled with Jesus overturning the expectations of the religious life of the day. In chapter 11 he unleashes a series of “woes” on the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, those regarded as religious experts. He accuses them of being sticklers about minor laws while ignoring the essentials like justice and compassion, of seeking to look the part of the religiously successful while being filled with corruption inside, of taking pride that they hold the means of salvation for others while shutting the door on those who need it.

In chapter 12 he says, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees.” And “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” He tells the crowds not to seek after riches and material things, but to seek after the kingdom of God. It was assumed that wealth was a sign of righteousness and God’s blessing.

In chapter 13 someone asks Jesus a question that has the same spirit as the question in our text. “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” At first Jesus seems to play into the assumptions of the day. He says, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” But then he shifts and says that many who assume that they have entered through the narrow door will have the door slammed in their face. “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God.” But then Jesus throws the doors of the kingdom wide open and says, “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” Jesus turns the religious expectations of the day on their heads, for he says, “Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

It is easy to read these chapters in Luke as if Jesus were talking about sin and guilt, if you assume that this is what Jesus is talking about. Western culture has been described as a guilt culture over against Eastern cultures that are shame and honor based cultures. We in the West ask, “What did you do wrong? What law did you break?” But those in the East ask, “Who did you dishonor? What custom did you beak?” The consequence for breaking the law is guilt and some form of punishment. The consequence for dishonoring someone is shame and ostracism.

Let me suggest that Jesus is addressing a shame based culture in Luke rather than a guilt based culture. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law aren’t so worried about doing what is right and what is wrong as about appearing to be in the right. They want the places of honor. They seek prosperity and love money because it demonstrates that they are blessed by God. When people see a wealthy man, they assume that he is also righteous. They look down on others not because they are morally inferior but because their sin makes them unclean. It makes them like the Gentiles. It dishonors them and the community. Sinners should therefore be kept at a distance, ostracized from the community, not counted as among the righteous. The people assume that those Pilate killed are sinners because they are so shamed and dishonored by having their blood mixed with their sacrifices.

Jesus thus calls the people to repent from a shame based religious culture. Now I want to be clear, I am not going to set up the Western guilt based religious culture as the alternative. Our guilt based religious culture has its own serious problems that we need to repent from, a culture that arose and developed many of its problems because we didn’t realize that Jewish society was a shame based culture and not a guilt based culture. But that is a different sermon.

Jesus calls the people to repent from a shame based religious culture because it values people on appearances rather than on substance. Jesus calls us to turn from shame to grace. In a shame based culture people who don’t succeed in life, people who haven’t managed to put up at least the appearance of “righteousness” are discounted as embarrassments to the community. A shame base culture thus encourages a draconian work ethic. Jesus accuses the teachers of the law of loading on the people all kinds of laws and regulations, but then not lifting a finger to help them. The law becomes a status marker – the more you can follow the minutiae of the law the greater status you will have in the community, the more successful you will be, the more you will be honored.

While we in the West may live in a guilt based religious culture, let me suggest that our culture is motivated by shame as well. We live in a culture that values material success, or at least the appearance of success. The other day I perused Christianity Today’s special edition for pastors.[2] While I think the articles meant well and some had good advice about various things, they all sought to help pastors become more effective pastors, more successful. There were three articles on how to better understand, minister to, and preach to Generation Z – which is the generation now entering college. There was an article on balancing our drive for success with our need for connection and another on how to raise kids while being a full time pastor. The irony of it was that in the midst of all these articles I needed to read so that I could know the right things and practice the right practices in order to make my ministry more successful, there was an article by a pastor whose ministry became more fruitful as he worked less and less, as he quit striving so hard to be successful. The tragedy of it was that this diamond in the rough appeared to be just another thing I had to do in order to achieve. This culture of success and shame lives and breathes in the church as well as in society.

 It has been suggested that shame is one of three main emotions that motivate us in detrimental ways. The other two are fear and anger. Let me read you a list of emotions and see if you associate with them. Do you feel these feelings occasionally or often? Defeated, inferior, inadequate, depressed, slighted, unloved, degraded, isolated, deprived, worthless, discouraged, unappreciated. These are emotions often associated with shame. When I read those articles from Christianity Today instead of feeling enlightened, encouraged, and energized, I felt inadequate, inferior, and worthless. I am never going to measure up to all of that. I felt ashamed.

Do you ever feel like you don’t measure up? Do you ever feel like you have to prove your worth over and over and over again? Do you ever think that getting that job, or that degree, or that car will make you feel like you have finally made it? And do I need to mention body image, or women’s clothing, or all the way men display their worth through their tools or their toys – “Take a look at the new golf club I got, just feel how well balanced it is. It’s like swinging air!” Welcome to the shame culture of the West. We are constantly bombarded by news stories, conferences, workshops, and advertising with the same message – you are not good enough!

But Jesus calls us to repent from this. He said, “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’”

When we get caught up in a culture of shame we get stuck on a treadmill. Nothing we produce will ever be good enough. There will always be some other level we could attain to. There will always be someone else who is more successful, who attracts more attention than us. We will always be left either feeling like a tree with barren branches, or like the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law who look down on everyone else who isn’t quite up to our level. Whichever way we go, our branches will be barren of the fruit that really matters: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Jesus continues, “Sir,” the man replied, “leave the tree alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine. If not, then cut it down.” The tree cannot produce good fruit on its own. It needs the gardener to tend it. It needs good soil and water and fertilizer. The production of good fruit in the life of a disciple of Jesus comes through grace. It comes through God’s work in us rather than through all our striving.

There are two dimensions to being a disciple of Christ, an active dimension and a passive dimension.[3] We are participants in our spiritual growth. We do need to develop good spiritual habits and practices. We do need to strive after virtue and seek to do the right thing. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, scripture reading and so on, however, place us in a position that allows the second dimension to work. This is the passive dimension in which we die to ourselves, in which we recognize our need for God’s grace, in which we stop all our striving, acknowledge our weaknesses, repent of our sin, and receive grace of God. It is here that God tells us that we are his and he loves us. It is here that we learn to say: I don’t know. I was wrong. I am sorry. And I need help. And it is her that the Spirit fertilizes our soil and waters our roots so that we may produce good fruit. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[silence]

 

Merciful God,

in Christ you make all things new.

Transform the poverty of our nature

by the riches of your grace,

and in the renewal of our lives

make known your heavenly glory;

through Jesus Christ our Redeemer,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.



[1] Louise Penny writes a mystery series in which her main character, Armand Gamache, the head of the murder squad of the Quebec police, takes on a number of protégés, people who other leaders in the police force count as a liability and not cut out for the job. But Gamache takes these failures under his wing and he coaches them until they achieve the highest ranks in the police department. The advice he always gives them when they begin is this. He tells them there are four sayings that lead to wisdom: "I don't know. I need help. I'm sorry. I was wrong."

[2] CT Pastors Special Issue: The Integrated Pastor (Spring, 2019).

[3] Pastor and author Samuel Wells says, “There are two dimensions to discipleship. One is the learning of habits and the forming of character, the shaping of commitments and the inscribing of rhythms, the training in discipline and the facing of sacrifices. Some people speak as if that were the only important part. But the other dimension is perhaps even more important. It is the acknowledgement of weakness, the asking for help, the naming of failure, the request of forgiveness, the desire for reconciliation, and the longing for restoration.” Samuel Wells, Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith (Brazos Press, 2011), 35.

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March 17, 2019 Fasting from Fear
(Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Do you ever get scared? I do sometimes. What are some things that make people scared? The dark, snakes, spiders, dogs, thunder storms. There are lots of things that can make us scared. But what are some things that help us not be scared. What could you do if you are scared? Sing a song. Run away. Find your mom or dad. Friends. Well I think hugs are one of the best ways to get rid of fear. There is nothing that makes you feel safer than being hugged by your mom or dad, or grandma or grandpa when you are scared. But did you know that some animals give their children hugs. When a mother hen senses danger, she will open up her wings and her baby chicks know that that means they need to come to her and hide underneath her wings.

Now a hug from a parent in one thing that can help us when we are afraid, but how about a hug from God? Every week over the next few weeks we are going to start our worship saying these words from Psalm 91, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” And in our gospel lesson today Jesus says to the people of Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Jesus says he is like a hen who gathers her chicks under her wings.

I have a picture for you of a hen with her chicks. So next time you are afraid and you go to someone for a hug, remember that Jesus wants to give you a hug too. [End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

“I was afraid.” “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid.” Adam does not say, “Thank you,” or “I praise you,” or “What would you have me do,” or even, “Great and Almighty God,” but Adam’s first words, humankind’s first words to God are, “I was afraid.” We are looking at fear during this Lenten season not only because our world seems to be going through a stage of heightened fear, but because fear is a common theme in the biblical story. Rabbi Harold Kushner who wrote Why Bad Things Happen to Good People calls “Do not fear” the 11th commandment because it occurs so frequently in the biblical story, more than 80 times.[1]

Sometimes people are explicitly fearful in the biblical story, such as when Adam and Eve hide in the garden after the first sin. Just as often, however, fear operates implicitly. Cain is angry and probably jealous that God favored Abel’s sacrifice. We can surmise that he fears being overtaken by his younger brother. When God exiles him for murdering Abel, Cain fears for his life and begs God for protection. The people in Babel build a huge tower in order to “make a name for themselves” and to prevent themselves from being scattered. It is not clear what they fear, but they seek to protect themselves by boosting their reputation and remaining united. After Jacob cheats Esau out of Isaac’s blessing, he flees for his life before the murderous rage of Esau. When he returns years later he sends his wives and children ahead of him as human shields to make sure Esau is over his anger. Jealousy, again probably mixed with fear, causes Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. Years later they bow before Pharaoh’s deputy cringing in fear for their lives.

In the New Testament the crowds and the disciples all respond to Jesus’ teaching and miraculous powers with awe and with fear. Full of bravado the disciples all follow Peter in vowing to stay with Jesus to the very end, but then melt away as the soldiers march Jesus from Gethsemane to the temple. After the angel tells the women that Jesus has risen from the dead, Marks’ gospel ends with this: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (16:8). John tells us that the disciples met together in the upper room in Jerusalem on that same evening with the door locked for fear of the Jewish leaders.

In our text this morning, God appears to Abram and greets him with the first instance of the 11th commandment, “Do not be afraid.” But what is Abram afraid of? Well, God uproots Abram from the only social security system of the ancient world, one’s extended family, and tells him to go to an unknown land. When he arrives in Canaan, there is a famine. He and Sarai flee to Egypt where Abram passes Sarai off as his sister lest Pharaoh kill him and to take her into his haram. When he gets back he and Lot split up. Abram allows Lot to settle in the more fertile plain of Jordan. Abram the less fertile land. Soon the Kings all around Abram and Lot go to war with each other. Lot ends up being taken hostage forcing Abram to enter into the fray. By now Abram is probably into his early 80s and still childless even though God had promised to make of him a great nation. So what is Abram afraid of? The question should rather be, what is Abram not afraid of?

We often speak of Abram as the father of our faith, but fear is Abram’s other alternative. The biblical story thus poses two opposing approaches to life; one can approach life from a stance of fear or one can approach life from a stance of faith. But how does one choose faith over fear?

Such a choice is not simply a rational decision. No one sets about looking at the world to see which makes more sense. You pick up the paper and read of a terrorist in New Zeeland. You don’t choose to think, “The world is overrun by Islamic terrorists.” But some may come to that conclusion irrespective of the facts that the terrorist in this case was a white nationalist and that terrorist attacks are actually extremely rare.  You don’t turn on the TV and watch the stories of the two recent Boeing Jet crashes and choose to think, “Flying is extremely dangerous. I am never going to fly again.” But some people will be cancelling the vacation plans they had for Spring Break.

No, people perceive the world through fear because they are moved to perceive it through fear. They are bombarded with anecdotal stories about various tragedies. They are fed misinformation by talking heads on shows that purport to be journalistic. Or maybe they live through a terrifying experience that leaves them in a state predisposed to fear. We view the world through fear because we are moved to do so.

In his book Factfulness Hans Rosling notes that fear arises in us because we often ignore or dismiss vital facts. We are fearful because we only know half of the picture. When there is a natural disaster the news rightly focuses on the pain and suffering of the victims, but no one ever mentions that over the past 50 years improved international responses to natural disasters have helped lower the ratio of deaths caused by natural disasters by over half. Moreover, Rosling argues that fear actually clouds our thinking. He says, “When we are afraid we do not think clearly. … There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.”[2] When we are afraid our brain causes us to see what we expect to see out of fear rather than to see what is actually before us. This would explain why a white police officer might see a young unarmed black teenager walking away from him as a threat to his life. He is afraid so he sees what his fear tells him to see.

Clinical counselor and spiritual director, Lisa Harrell posits that beneath fear lies anxiety and that anxiety at root is a feeling of being disconnected.[3] Before we feel fear, we recognize a disconnection between ourselves and the world around us. Perhaps there is a disconnection between me and another person because that person looks different or dresses different or talks different than me. Perhaps there is a disconnection because the thing before me is actually something that should be feared. You turn the corner on a hike through the mountains and there lying on the path is a rattle snake sunning itself. Fear is then the right response and you should disconnect yourself as much as possible from the snake.

But in this moment of anxiety, there is another possible response: faith. When you come across someone who looks and dresses and talks differently from you, you can respond with faith that this person is a human being, someone made in the image of God, and probably more like you than different from you. You can respond to the snake with a mix of fear and faith – fear telling you to be very cautious and back off, but faith telling you that the snake is just a snake and not something malicious. It has nothing against you and won’t harm you if you just leave it alone. Rosling would have us counter fear with facts. We should remember, he argues, that “2016 was the second safest year in aviation history” and that “flying has gotten 2,100 times safer” over the past 70 years. But while facts may help us some in responding to anxiety with faith rather than fear, according to Rosling himself, this is not really a rational process.

Rabbi Kushner makes a direct appeal to faith as he encourages us to conquer fear. He writes, “there is one more weapon we can deploy in our personal battle against the threat of terrorism, and that is faith. Not faith that God will protect the innocent and make sure nothing bad happens to them. We learned long before September 11 that we don’t live in that kind of world. The faith I am talking about is the conviction that God has made the world in such a way that wicked people inevitably overreach and bring about their downfall.” [4] This is close to Martin Luther King’s conviction that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Faith in the way the world was created, however, is a step removed from what really reconnects us. God comes to Abram and says, “Do not fear. I am your shield. Your reward shall be great.” In order to have faith that the world was created in such a way that it bends toward justice, one must have faith in a God, in a just God. God tells Abram that he is his protector, his shield. He will be there for Abram. Faith in God is thus not just facts about God that one believes, but a personal, relational knowledge of God, otherwise known as trust. If fear stems from the disconnection of anxiety, faith reconnects us to God. Once reconnected in a relationship with God, we can then more easily reconnect to the creation he made and to other human beings made in his image.

Abram, however, needs a bit of convincing. He asks God, “What can you give me since I remain childless.” God takes Abram outside and says, “Look up at the sky and count the stars. … So shall your offspring be.” “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited to him as righteousness.” Abram’s trust in God is counted as righteousness because, as I have said recently, righteousness is not about being good so much as being in a right relationship. The correct stance for us to take before the God of all creation is a stance of trust. That’s the relationship – God is Abram’s shield, Abram trusts. God watches over us, we believe in, we have faith in, we trust God.

Such a trust in God, however, is not, as Rabbi Kushner points out, that nothing bad will ever happen to us. It is a trust that has the long term in mind. Author and pastor Norman Shawchuck writes, “Fear kills mind and soul by slowly obliterating the visions we hold for our lives.” Faith opens up our vision of what can and will be. And so God takes Abram outside and says, “Look up at the sky and count the stars. … So shall your offspring be.” Through faith Abram has a new vision of what will be. But God goes on to emphasize the need to take a long term view. He tells Abram that before God fulfills his promise, Abram’s descendants will become slaves for four hundred years in Egypt. Only after all those years will God bring his people back to the land and fulfill his promise to Abram.

But then God gives Abram a sign of his promise to assure Abram that he will make good on his promise. He instructs Abram to cut a heifer, a goat and a ram in half, and also to sacrifice some birds. After Abram falls into a deep sleep, he sees a vision of a smoking firepot and a torch passing between the splayed animals. God, represented by the firepot and torch is basically saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die. May I become like these animals if I fail to keep my promises.”

In our Gospel lesson some Pharisees approach Jesus and try to scare him off. “Go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus takes the long view. He tells them he will continue doing what he is doing and more, that he himself is heading to Jerusalem “for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” He then turns the tables on the Pharisees and calls them to flee, not away, but into his arms. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

While Jesus looks ahead to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he is also looking to what that entry foreshadows, the coming of his kingdom. Jesus takes the long view. He knows that the cross lies ahead for him in the short term, but he has faith that a kingdom awaits in the long term. And so he keeps on driving out demons and healing people as he makes his way towards Jerusalem. And there in Jerusalem God gives his people and all people a sign of the new covenant, a sign of God’s eternal love and his eternal protection: Jesus spreads his arms on a cross in order to take the world under the shadow of the Almighty. Friends in Christ, Fear not for Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ shall come again. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Silence

God of Abraham and Israel, in Jesus Christ lifted up on a cross, you opened up for us the path to eternal life. Grant us the gift of your Spirit that we may walk by faith on that path to eternal life. We pray in the name of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.



[1] Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, Reprint edition (New York: Anchor, 2010), 22.

[2] Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, and Ola Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018), 103.

[3] “Role of a Spiritual Director: Awareness and Presence,” lecture for the Tending the Holy program at the Christos Center, Minneapolis, MN.

[4] Kushner, Conquering Fear, 38.

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March 10, 2019 Fasting from Fear: If you are the Son of God
(Luke 4:1-13) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Do you all know what this is? This is one of our family photo albums. This one has pictures of our family when Evan and Elise were maybe about your age or even a bit younger. Evan and Elise are still my children, and I know that. But when I look through one of our photo albums, I am reminded of all the things we did together as a family, of vacations we took, of friends we had through the years. Look here is a picture of Miss Grace and Miss Elise. And so I am reminded that being a family means having a history together. We have a whole family story.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is out in the wilderness for forty days where he is tempted by the devil. And the devil keeps questioning Jesus about his relationship to God. He says, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread.” “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the top of the temple.” Basically the devil keeps asking, “Are you really the Son of God?”

Jesus answers the devils temptation by quoting from the Bible. But when he does so, he is not just saying some words, he is pointing the devil to the story of when God saves his people, his children, Israel from Egypt. The Bible is sort of like Jesus’ family album. He is saying, “Yes, I know I am God’s Son because here is a story from my family album. Here is where God led Israel out of Egypt and through the desert to the Promised Land.” And since you we are God’s children too, when we read the Bible we can think of it like a family photo album, they are stories of God and our family.

* * * * * * * [End of Children’s Sermon] * * * * * * *

Jesus has just been baptized by John in the River Jordan. As he was praying heaven opened and the Holy Spirit “anointed” him by landing on him in the form of a dove. A voice from heaven affirmed this anointing, “You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” This not only confirmed to Jesus that he was the Son of God, the Messiah, but that his vocation was to lead God’s people in a new exodus. He was baptized in the River Jordan just below Mount Nebo where the first Joshua, which is the Hebrew form of Jesus, led God’s people into the Promised Land after their 40 years in the desert.

The Spirt, Luke tells us, leads Jesus into the wilderness where for forty days he is tempted by the devil. We often think of Jesus’ temptation as a series of just three temptations. But according to Luke Jesus’ trial lasted all 40 days. One wonders if the devil kept at Jesus with these same three temptations or if these three just sort of some up the nature of these 40 days of trial.

While each temptation is unique, they each focus on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, and thus they play upon fear: each time the devil beings, “if you are the Son of God.” This is explicit in the first and third temptation, but implicit in the second. The Son of God is the Messiah and so destined to be king not only of Israel, but of the nations. The devil tempts Jesus with regard to the core of his identity. You can almost hear the Devil up to his old tricks again. “Did God really say that you were his beloved Son? If he is so pleased with you, why did his Spirit lead you out here into the wilderness? Why has he left you so hungry? If you are his Son, don’t you deserve to be well fed? Go ahead, turn these stones into bread if you are indeed the Son of God.”

Religion throughout human history has often been viewed as sort of a tool to help human beings cope in a dangerous world. The pagan nations surrounding Israel sacrificed to the gods to placate them so that the gods would provide the nation with a good harvest, or to end a drought, or to make their flocks fertile. In our modern world religion is often viewed as a moral guide and a psychological coping mechanism. People use religion to teach their kids to be nice to people and to comfort themselves. Religion, particularly in North American, has thus become privatized and cordoned off as just one aspect of our lives among many.

Robert Wicks, a psychologist who specializes in helping people after traumatic experiences, writes that “we [often] live in two different worlds – one a seemingly real, practical and demanding world; the other, a wistful, so-called ‘spiritual’ world.” [i] For the most part our society expects us to live publicly in this real, practical and secular world. This is where we work and study and buy things and vote for politicians. This world calls us to be realistic about human nature and the kind of world we live in. It is a competitive world that demands that we each seek and use power to obtain and maintain our place. Religion, which is otherworldly, is supposed to remain in the private sphere. We can take comfort that God forgives us and loves us and saves us from the tortures of hell, and in our homes and churches we can teach our children to be good.

This split between the “real world” and the spiritual world often faces a crisis when we face “real world” hardships and difficulties. Our religion tells us that God loves us. Christianity teaches us that through baptism we are God’s children, sons and daughters. But how does that work when we lose our job? How does that work when we finish our PhD and there are no positions available? How does that work when a woman of 50, like my aunt Kathi, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease? Has this question never creeped into your mind when you have faced a problem in life? “If God loves you, why is this happening to you? If God is so powerful, why is he allowing you to suffer? Are you really a child of God? Is there really a God anyway?”

While our society tries to separate our “religious” life from our “real” life, Robert Wicks says, “Real spirituality dawns when our life with God becomes as real as the problems and joys we experience each day.” Jesus responds to the devil’s temptation by saying, “It is written, “People don’t’ live by bread alone.” Jesus expects even the devil to know the scriptures for he assumes that the devil can complete this verse from Deuteronomy 8:3, “People don’t live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” But Jesus also expects that the devil knows what precedes: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness for forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna … to teach you that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Jesus was led into the wilderness just as God led the Israelites into the wilderness. Our relationship with God is not just about learning morality and feeling good about ourselves. Our relationship with God is about God leading us and coming with us into the wilderness. Our relationship with God is about learning to trust God in the everyday activities in our lives, both the times in the wilderness and the times in the Promised Land. And so our relationship with God is also about learning to obey God in the everyday activities in our lives. To be a child of God is to always be a child of God, not just on Sunday in order to get a spiritual fix to help us get through the week. And so to be a child of God is to trust that God will provide, but his provision is usually just enough for each day and it comes not to take us out of hardship and pain and suffering, but it comes in the midst of hardship and pain and suffering.

Jesus responds to the devil not by quoting a proof text, but by centering his experience in the story of God’s relationship with Israel. “Yes, I am the Son of God for God led his son, Israel, into the wilderness where he guided them and provided for them for forty years. I am learning as Israel learned that I do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Jesus rejects the temptation to view the world through fear, and views the world through faith.

Not satisfied, the devil tries another tactic. Both Jesus and the devil know that as the Son of God, Jesus is destined to become king of the nations. The devil’s temptation is twofold: he tempts Jesus to take what is rightfully his now instead of waiting for it, and he tempts Jesus to claim what is rightfully his by his way rather than God’s way. Jesus and the devil already know that the cross lies ahead for Jesus. The devil questions whether Jesus really has to go through the cross to fulfill his calling as the Messiah. If Jesus would just worship the devil and rule in his way rather than in God’s way, Jesus could take authority over all the kingdoms of the world. Why wait, if you are the Son of God. If you are the Son of God, why take up a cross?

As Christians living after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus we live in a paradox that poses us a similar temptation. Jesus has already won the victory over death and sin. His kingdom is coming. God has promised that his followers will rule with Jesus. Paul can even say in Ephesians that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms” (2:6). We are in one sense already reigning with Jesus. The paradox, however, is that the kingdom is not yet fully come.

Is it not our place and our calling to implement the Kingdom of God here and now? Are we not to anticipate the Kingdom by shaping society according to the Kingdom? Should we not enter into politics and the business world and academia and use our power and influence to bring the Kingdom in? Is it not our destiny to reign with Jesus?

Jesus answers the devil, “It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” Again, while Jesus quotes a verse that directly counters the devil’s temptation, the full force of his answer can only be seen if we know the context of the verse. Jesus again quotes from Deuteronomy (chapter 6) from a section in which God is commanding Israel to obey all his commandments once they enter into the Promised Land. The passage begins with a command to teach God’s commands to and impress them upon their children. These commands are to be the way in which Israel as a nation understands, perceives and acts within the world. The section, in fact, includes what can be called the primary Jewish confession of faith, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, … and soul, … and strength” (4-5). The passage ends with the reason for all this: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (21).

Once again Jesus counters the devil’s temptation by placing himself in the story of Israel. Israel was called to put the pagan gods of Egypt behind them, but that meant worshipping the one true God alone, and trusting alone in the power of God. Leaving the pagan gods meant also leaving the imperial forces of Pharaoh behind them. Likewise, Jesus is not to worship other gods or to put his trust in human power or demonic power. The main means Jesus had to accomplish his ministry was the power of God given him through the Spirit and acted upon him in his resurrection.

So are we called to enter into politics and business and the academy to witness to the kingdom and so that society might bend ever so slightly toward the kingdom? Yes, but the Kingdom remains a cross shaped Kingdom. The only means of influence Jesus condones for us are the same means that he used –welcoming the outcasts, forgiving sinners, protecting the vulnerable, calling out the abuses of power by the privileged, loving our enemies. Jesus is clear that the church’s mission in this kingdom anticipating world is the same as his. It is to take up a cross and trust in the power of God. Again, Jesus deflects the temptation by immersing himself in the story of Israel. We are called to immerse ourselves in the story of Jesus.

Hearing Jesus’ response, the devil doubles down. If Jesus is determined to head to the cross, maybe he ought to test the waters first. The devil takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple and says “So you are the Son of God, and yet you trust God with your life? Even through death? Well, if you are indeed the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Maybe before you take up your cross, you should test the waters.

Jesus responds “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus also, doubles down because he refers the devil back to the same passage he quoted earlier. His answer is roughly the same. He is committed to living out his story as God’s Son, as the true and obedient Israelite. He is committed to worshipping and serving only God, which means living according to God’s ways rather than the worlds.

At the beginning of this sermon I said that people in our society often live in “two worlds:” a world of “reality” and a world of “spirituality.” The fear that comes from life’s difficult situations can often break down the façade that separates these two worlds. This can be in the form of a personal tragedy, or, maybe a national crisis. WE thought America was a Christian nation, but now we have more and more Muslims entering the country, abortion remains legal and Socialism continues to pose a threat to “The American Way of Life.”

Wicks suggested that when this façade falls this may lead to a real spirituality. Let me suggest that this can also lead to a false spirituality. In the latter, when people give in to fear, Jesus and God become co-opted into a “real world” agenda. People seek to establish the kingdom through this worldly power and means, and the Kingdom is often equated with our nation, or our political party, or our economic or political system.

 In the former, in real spirituality, when we respond to fear with faith and immerse ourselves in the stories of Israel and Jesus, God becomes truly present to us as he was to the Israelites in the desert and to Jesus during his ministry. Having our “sonship” and “daughtership” confirmed by God’s presence, we are then enabled to truly live the Christina life and live into God’s story. We are enabled to love our neighbors, protect the vulnerable, and to die to ourselves so that Jesus’ reign may be seen in our very lives.  In so doing we bear witness to the reign of Christ and through us God bends the world ever so slightly towards the kingdom. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit

[Silence]

Almighty God,
your Son fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are but did not sin.
Give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit,
that as you know our weakness,
so we may know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer,
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.



[i] Robert Wicks in Everyday Simplicity, quoted in Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God: Paperback Edition (Nashville: Upper Room, 2006), 186.

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March 3, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: The Purpose of Prayer
(Luke 9:28-36) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] [lights a candle] Have you ever wondered how a candle burns? You know that they are pretty easy to put out right? You can just blow them out, like the candles on your birthday cake. But you can also put them out by taking a candle snuffer, and just putting it over the flame. Now when I do this, [takes a glass and puts it over the flame] I am not touching the wick that the flame is on or even the flame itself. I can just put the glass over the flame, and eventually the flame goes out. Why is that?

The flame, you see, needs oxygen or air to burn. When I put the glass over top of the flame, the flame burns up all the oxygen, all the air inside the glass and once all the oxygen is gone the flame dies.

We just sang “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” That sounds like we are like candles. We have a little light that shines. But what is the light that you  let shine? [Jesus, the gospel] That’s right, Jesus is the light we have. Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” So when we tell people about Jesus, we are shining the light of Jesus. But Jesus also says to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” When we live like Jesus, then the light of Jesus shines through us.

We are like a candle that shines a light. The candle isn’t the light, but the light burns because of the candle. But, like we saw earlier, the flame of a candle also needs oxygen. For us to shine the light of Jesus, we need something like oxygen or air. We need the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God who breathes the life of Jesus into us. And one of the regular ways God breaths his Spirit into us is through prayer. When we don’t pray, it is like we are putting a glass over our flame. Now when we do pray, we often talk to God and ask him for things or thank him for things. But we can also just be silent in prayer. And in that silence we can open the doors of our hearts to let God’s Spirit in. So can we do that? Let’s pray in silence for a moment and then I will pray for us. … Thank you God for the gift of your Spirit. May your Spirit within us help us to shine the light of Christ through all that we say and all that we do. Amen.

* * * * * * * * * * [End of Children’s Sermon] * * * * * * * * * *

In Luke 9:18, in the scene before our text, it says, “Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” The discussion that follows serves as the climactic turning point in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. After the disciples respond that others say that Jesus is “John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the Prophets come back to life,” Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers, “The Messiah.”

Now it is finally out in the open. Jesus is the long awaited King of Israel, the one anointed to save God’s people. Before this revelation people keep asking who Jesus is. And when the demons proclaim him to be the Son of God, he tells them to be quiet. This is dangerous knowledge. To claim to be the Son of God and the Messiah is to lay down a challenge before Caesar. Jesus confirms the dangerous nature of this knowledge but confounds his disciples by next telling them, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Jesus thus reveals not only that he is the Messiah but that his mission as the Messiah is to take up a cross.

The next thing Luke tells us is that a few days later Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up a mountain to pray. We have been looking at prayer through the Psalms over the past weeks, but it would be a shame to have a series on prayer without at least one sermon coming from the Gospel of Luke. One of the unique emphases of Luke, you see, is his emphasis on prayer, and particularly that Jesus sustained his ministry through prayer. Matthew mentions that Jesus actually prays only twice in his gospel. Mark only 3 times. But Luke tells us 8 times that Jesus prays.

Most of the time Luke just notes that Jesus went off to pray or was praying, such as before Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, “Once while Jesus was praying … he asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” There are three times, however, where Luke makes prayer central to what happens in the story. Like Matthew and Mark, in Luke Jesus prays in Gethsemane. At the end of Jesus’ ministry, just as he is about to be arrested, tried, beaten, mocked, and crucified, Jesus goes off by himself to pray. Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke tells us that just after Jesus was baptized, Jesus was praying when the Holy Spirit came down upon him and God’s voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” Likewise, it is only Luke who tells us that Jesus goes up the mountain with the three disciples to pray. Only Luke tells us that it is while Jesus is praying that he is transfigured, that he talks with Moses and Elijah, and that God’s voice comes again saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to him.”

Luke depicts Jesus as being sustained in and through prayer throughout his ministry. Telling us that “Once, when Jesus was praying,” paints the impression that Jesus regularly and frequently went off by himself or with his disciples to pray. But Luke also emphasizes Jesus’ prayer life at the key points in his ministry. Jesus is praying at the beginning of his ministry when he is anointed by baptism and the Spirit and confirmed by the voice of God. Jesus is praying at the turning point in his ministry, just after he openly claims to be the Messiah and reveals that he is going to go to Jerusalem to take up a cross. And Jesus prays at the end of his ministry moments before he is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.

But why is this important? Why does Luke emphasize Jesus’ prayer life? Frist of all, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ prayer life to show us how necessary it was for Jesus. We believe Jesus was both God and man, but Jesus didn’t do all the things he did – healing people, casting out demons, going to the cross - simply as God. He did them as a flesh and blood human being. I don’t quite understand it and it seems almost heretical to say it, but Luke depicts Jesus as needing the power of the Holy Spirit to do all that he does. Luke depicts Jesus as not able to do these thing on his own. Although Jesus is God in the flesh, Jesus needs to go off by himself in prayer. Jesus needs to be with his Heavenly Father. Jesus needs to commune with the Holy Spirit. He does this through prayer.

Second, if Jesus needed to commune with the Father and the Spirit, so do we. Luke tells us 8 times that Jesus prays and he mentions prayer 19 more times. In Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke mentions prayer 32 times. And in the majority of those times Luke tells us of the prayers of the Apostles. Luke reports that the followers of Jesus continue to meet and pray in the days after Jesus’ ascension. They are all together praying when the Spirit comes at Pentecost. They pray to choose a 12th apostle. They pray when Peter is in prison. Peter is praying when he receives the messengers from Cornelius. They pray when they commission Paul and Barnabas. Peter and Paul both pray before healing people. They pray before choosing elders for the church in Antioch. Paul receives his call to go to the Gentiles while he is in prayer. If Jesus needed to pray to sustain his ministry, the Acts of the Apostles flow out of their prayer.

So what does Jesus receive in prayer? What can we hope to receive in prayer? Let’s take a closer look at our text. Four things happen while Jesus is praying. First his appearance changes and his clothes become bright as a flash of lightening. This is an image taken from the book of Daniel (10) and repeated in the book of Revelation (1) of the Son of Man who appears before the heavenly throne of God and is given authority over all the nations. Jesus is transfigured so that he appears as he truly is and as he will be. Jesus receives a foretaste of his full glory. He is assured of what ultimately lies ahead.

Second, Jesus receives a visitation from Moses and Elijah. These are two of Israel’s greatest figures. They represent two portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets. They come and speak to Jesus about his departure, or exodus in the Greek. In other words, they confirm Jesus’ vocation as the Messiah and his mission to the cross. He is going to be the new Moses to lead God’s people out of their bondage to sin and death through the cross. .

Third, as Moses and Elijah are leaving, a cloud envelopes the disciples. The cloud recalls the very presence of God. When Moses went up on Mount Sinai he entered into this cloud. Once the tabernacle was built, the cloud came of the mountain and entered the Holy of Holies. The Israelites were then led through the desert by this cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. The cloud shows the Israelites that God is with them in and through the desert. The cloud shows Jesus that God himself is leading him to and through the cross.

Fourth, the voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to him.” The voice alludes to Psalm 2, in which God proclaims the King to be his son. It recalls Isaiah 42 and identifies Jesus with the Suffering Servant, God’s chosen. And it alludes to Deuteronomy 18 in which God promises Israel a great Prophet to whom Israel must listen. The voice of God again affirms Jesus’ status as his Son. It also recalls the voice at his baptism and assures Jesus of God’s love.

So on the mountain top, as he is praying, God gives Jesus four gifts to sustain carry him through his ministry: He is given a glimpse of his ultimate future in glory; God confirms Jesus’s vocation as the Messiah who is to take up the cross; God assures Jesus that he will be with him; and God affirms Jesus’ status as his Son and his Beloved.

We too may receive the same gifts in prayer. If you approach prayer not just as a time to ask God for things, but as a time to listen to God and to receive from him, you may receive these same gifts. As you pray in silence, contemplating some act of Jesus or some aspect of God, a feeling of wholeness and peace may surround you. You may feel enveloped by the love of God. Maybe you may even hear a still, small voice saying, “You are my daughter. You are my son. I love you.” If you pray the scriptures, meditating on a psalm, you may begin to meditate on what God’s purpose is for you and your vocation. You may be led to something new, or you may feel that your calling is confirmed. When you go to God in prayer in times of distress, you may again feel a sense of peace and wholeness, which is a sense that God is indeed with you, even in your trouble. And in prayer you may get a glimpse of your future in glory.

These are all gifts Jesus receives in prayer. They are gifts that the disciples receive in prayer. We too may also may receive such gifts in prayer. Of course there are other gifts we may receive. And we may receive such gifts at other times, such as when we are singing and praising God, or listening to a sermon, or just reading scripture. But if and when we receive such gifts, we may be tempted to think that these gifts, these experiences, are the purpose of prayer, or the purpose of worship. Such experiences are exhilarating and they make our faith come alive. They sustain us in our faith and in our life before God. But as Moses and Elijah are leaving, Peter offers to pitch some tents, supposedly like the booths Jewish people still erect today during the High Holidays to remember Israel’s time of deliverance through the desert. Peter wants to hold on to this experience. But Luke tells us, “He did not know what he was saying.”

These gifts are not the purpose of prayer. The voice from heaven tells the disciples to listen to Jesus. Obey Jesus.  It is only with such gifts that Jesus was able to carry out his ministry, to exert his powers of healing, to show compassion on the outcast, and ultimately to surrender his life for the life of the world. God gives us such gifts through prayer as well in order to work on our hearts, to turn them from stone to flesh, to infuse them with compassion and love, to give us patience and wisdom, so that we become more and more like Jesus. Paul says that “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.” To be like Christ is not just to be righteous, or sinless, or holy, it is to act like Christ. While mountain top experiences are wonderful and good and necessary for us, Jesus came down off the mountain and set his face toward Jerusalem. We too must accept such gifts as gifts that prepare us and enable us to participate in God’s mission for the world. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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February 24, 2019 Guest Preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
February 17, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: The Way of the Faithful
(Psalm 1) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Imagine you are walking home after school one day and it is hot outside. Your class room was stuffy. There was no breeze. You climbed aboard the school bus and you are hit by a wave of heat because it had been sitting in the sun all afternoon. You climb off the bus and begin your walk home. The sun glares on your head and you can’t seem to find any shade anywhere.

By the time you finally get home your mouth feels like a desert. Your throat is raspy when you talk. You tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth and your lips feel like sand paper. Your dad takes one look at you and says, “Wow you look hot. I bet I know what you would like.” He reaches into the cupboard and pulls out a bag of goldfish. “Would you like some of these?” You shake your head. “No thanks,” you croak. “How about some mixed nuts?” “Not those either.” “Ah,” he says. “I know exactly what you want.” He reaches into the cupboard and pulls out a glass. He gets a pitcher of water from the refrigerator. He pours you a glass and …. “Ahhhhhh. That’s what I needed.”

When we get thirsty it is our bodies telling us that we need water. Our bodies need lots and lots of water to be healthy. In Psalm 1 we learn that as people we need God’s word, God’s teaching to be healthy. We need to read the bible often and think about it often so that the stories in the Bible teach us who God is and who God wants us to be. In Psalm 1 the Bible, God’s teaching is said to be like a stream of water:

[Pour Water] Blessed is the person whose delight is in the teaching of the Lord, and who meditates on his teaching day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers. [End of Children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

In Palm 1 the psalmist presents us with a contrast between the way of the faithful and the way of the faithless. The psalm begins with a progressive description of the faithless. One might first walk along with the wicked, then stand on the way that sinners regularly tread, and finally the one might take a seat with a group of mockers. The psalmist moves form what might be a casual, one-off interaction, to more and more deliberate action until one is regularly taking council with the wicked.

Notice how the nature of the people progresses as well. The faithless person can’t be counted on because he doesn’t follow through on his commitments to others. He doesn’t care about them. Sinners are those who fail in their responsibilities. To sin is to miss the mark. They are failures at doing what they are supposed to do. Finally, mockers are those who completely disdain others. They are arrogant and refuse any correction from anyone else. They believe they are above all others, so they simply criticize and show contempt for others. Together all three terms describe the nature of the faithless.

The psalm then moves to contrast the faithless with the faithful.  Most translations use the words the wicked and the righteous, but as I have argued a few weeks ago, biblical righteousness is not just about following rules and keeping yourself from doing bad things, it is about relationships. The righteous person is faithful and true to others. God himself is righteous because he is good and loving and faithful to his people and to his creation. God therefore made laws not just so that we would follow them, but so that we would be good and faithful and just to others like him.

So while the faithless are goading each other on in their disdain for others, the faithful are what you might call teachable. The faithful are humble and place themselves under the teaching of the Lord. They delight in the teaching of the Lord. Most translations translate torah as “law,” but the Torah is not just a list of commands and laws. It is the story of God’s dealing with his people. It teaches us of God’s righteousness, his faithfulness to his people and his creation, through the story of God redeeming and watching over Israel. The faithful sink themselves into this story, meditating on it day and night. It becomes the story that the faithful find themselves in. As they reflect on the sorry they allow it to shape how they perceive the world, how they interpret the world, what they value in the world, and so on. The story provides the context for their lives and thus gives meaning and value to their lives. They find their identity as one of God’s people and thus find themselves fed by and drawn into God’s story. They are therefore blessed because they are living in the way of the creator.

Jeremiah 17 serves as a companion text to Psalm 1. Hear the similarities:

[B]lessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,

    whose confidence is in him.

They will be like a tree planted by the water

    that sends out its roots by the stream.

It does not fear when heat comes;

    its leaves are always green.

It has no worries in a year of drought

    and never fails to bear fruit.

 It is likely that Psalm 1 was written later since it serves as an introduction to the Psalms and the Psalms were put together in this format during Israel’s exile in Babylon. The psalmist contrasts those who are teachable with those who are not; Jeremy contrasts those who trust in God with those who trust in humankind. Since the psalmist alludes to and almost quotes Jeremiah, we can conclude that meditating on God’s teaching is akin to trusting in God. The teachable person trusts in the goodness of the teacher and of the materials. She trusts that they will shape her in good and proper ways. Those who trust in God and are teachable are thus like a tree planted by a stream of water. They have a constant source of life. In contrast, the faithless in Psalm 1 are on the move, planning and scheming, grasping after their own gain. The cursed in Jeremiah 17 “draw strength from mere flesh.” Their hearts are turned away from the Lord. The blessed faithful rest in God. They trust. They soak up God’s ways through his word.

Psalm 1 thus serves as an apt introduction to the book of prayers for God’s people even though it isn’t really a psalm. Commentators have noted that Psalm 1 reads more like a chapter from the book of Proverbs than a psalm. It is not a call to praise God. The psalmist does not thank God for anything. He is not in danger from his enemies. He does not cry out for salvation. It is not a lament of the apparent absence of God. God is not even active until the final verse.

Psalm 1 is thus more like a piece of wisdom. It presents us with what life is generally like. The faithless, those who are not rooted in God, go about walking in the way of sinners. They seek companionship with mockers. They are not open to wisdom and so “they are like chaff that the wind blows away.” They have no grounding. And so they are not able to produce anything solid that lasts. When the time of judgment comes, they will not stand for they will be found to have been faithless to others and to have failed in their responsibilities. They will also not be welcome in the assembly of the faithful, those whom the community entrusts to make judgments and decisions for the community such as the council of the church or the elders who sit at the gate in the book of Ruth.

In contrast, this is what life is generally like for the faithful: because the faithful are rooted in God’s story, since they are drawing their life from God’s ways, they will prosper. Their goodness will be evident to others as the life they draw upon from God will produce fruit that is life-giving to others. They will be like a tree planted by streams of water “which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” Like the Blessed in Jeremiah, they will “not fear when heat comes” and they have “no worries in a year of drought.

The psalmist concludes that “the Lord watches over the way of the faithful, but the way of the faithless leads to destruction.” The Lord is gracious and kind to those who seek to follow him. He looks out for those who ground their lives in him. But what is God to do for those who are determined to follow their own way? What is he to do with those who, even worse, seek after the way of sinners and mockers? The psalm remains silent about what God does, but foresees that those who have turned away from the source of true life will find themselves heading towards destruction.

As an introduction to the Psalms, Psalm 1 is not an introduction to the content of the Psalms, rather it is an introduction to how we should read the Psalms. It encourages us to approach God’s word prayerfully and meditatively so that we can receive it as wisdom, as teaching and instruction that will move us to trust in God and to live according to God’s ways. This will sound familiar to a group of us who are reading J. De Waal Dryden’s book, A Hermeneutic of Wisdom. To others this may not sound very revolutionary, but it is not our normal approach to reading scripture.

For the past two hundred years or so, Western Christians have approached scripture with a modern, scientific agenda. We have assumed that what we are supposed to “get” out of a text of scripture, such as Psalm 1, is not a piece of wisdom, but a set of theological truths. A modern reading of Psalm 1 would draw out several theological “facts” such as: sin results from going your own way; God’s grace saves us through the Word of God; those who are saved may then be redirected toward righteousness by God’s Word. We are then supposed to take those abstract theological truths and match them to some more abstract ethical principles or laws. To be a good Christian, for instance, one must have a regular time of prayer and Bible study. We then take those ethical principles and try to determine how they apply to the context of our life. We thus are finally able to apply the scripture to our lives by resolving to take 10 minutes a day to read the Bible.

While a modern approach will teach such truths such as that we are saved by the grace of God, in practice it presumes that what really saves us is correct knowledge and then correct application. To be saved we need to extract the theological truth hidden in the poetry of the psalms or in the narrative of the “historical” books. Then, once we have accepted and believed in that truth, we will change our behavior accordingly.  A modern approach assumes that we humans are mainly thinking beings. While a modern theology will teach that humans sin because they have failed to trust in God – thus salvation comes through faith – it will attempt to get us to accept this by convincing us that it is true. It will seek to change our heads rather than where things have actually gone wrong, with our hearts.

Psalm 1, however, and all of scripture, addresses the heart. Psalm 1 is wisdom, it is guidance for life before God which is presented in poetic imagery. It seeks to move us rather than convince us by contrasting two ways of life with stark metaphors. It moves us away from the dry and fruitless life of faithless mockers that scatters in the afternoon breeze. It calls us to trust that we will be blessed if we turn away from the path of the faithless. It invites us to plant our roots in the Word of God with the promise of a fruitful life that will flow into, through and out of those who trust in the Lord.

Psalm 1 therefore invites us to approach the Psalms and all of scripture prayerfully, both poetically and literally for it says “blessed is the one … whose delight is in the teaching of the Lord and who meditates on his teaching day and night.” It invites us not to scour a biblical story for a theological principle, but to be drawn into the story – just as all stories work.  It invites us not to distill an ethical principle from the poetry of the prophets, but to have the prophet’s prophetic imagination open up our imagination so that we feel God’s grief as we humans continue to trust in ourselves, so that we feel God longing for us to place our trust in him so that we might know true life.

 It invites us to read the letters of the Apostle Paul not so that we can get our theology of the resurrection straight, but so that we can live our lives trusting that, because Jesus did indeed risen from the dead, “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26).

It invites us to read the gospels not so that we believe the fact that we are sinners whom Jesus came to save, but so that we can walk along with Jesus and see him create a community in which it is the poor and the hungry and those who are hated who are blessed while the well fed, respectable rich are warned that they have already received their reward. Psalm 1 invites us not to master the biblical text, but to sink our roots into the biblical story, and into the biblical poetry, through a prayerful, meditative reading of the text, so that God’s word can master us and bring us life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Give us a thirst for your word that we may desire to drink continually from it, so that our lives may bear the fruit of faith, hope and love. In Jesus name we pray. Amen

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February 10, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: Praying in the Midst of Trouble
(Psalm 138) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I would like to talk about prayer, but first let me tell you about two sisters. These sisters were not only sisters, but also the best of friends. They did everything together. They played together. They worked together. They went to school together. They knew each other so well, that when one of them began to say something, the other one would finish the sentence. They knew what each of them thought and how they felt. Have you ever known anyone like that? I have known some people who have been married for years who are something like that. And you know what? Prayer can be something like that.

Now when we think of prayer we often think that it is about us talking to God. We ask him for things. We thank him for things. We praise him. May be ask for forgiveness. A lot of what we do when we pray to God is to talk to God. But is that how we talk to people? When you talk to your parents or to your friend, do you just talk all the time? What else do you do? … You listen too. Sometimes you talk and sometimes you listen. We can listen to God by sitting in silence or by reading some verses from the Bible and just thinking about them. So in prayer we not only talk to God, but we listen too.

But what is truly wonderful about prayer is that we can not only pray to God and we not only listen to God, but God prays with us.  The Apostle Paul says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” God already knows us. He knows our thoughts and our feelings. He knows us so well that the Spirit can pray for us when we don’t even know what to pray. [End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

How many times have you heard someone in a movie or television show say this? “God, I know I haven’t spoken to you much in a long time. Well, since I was a kid, actually. And I know I haven’t been to church in many years, except maybe for Christmas and funerals and weddings – do those count, by the way? But I am really in a tough spot these days. If you could find your way to helping me out, I promise …”

It is so common a Hollywood scene that it has become a cliché. People who have no relationship with God and maybe even doubt God’s existence turn to God in a time of trouble and just begin asking God for things. If it works, if God answers, all the better. If not, nothing is lost. It seems, at least in Hollywood, that prayer comes easy to people who are in trouble.

But for the person who truly believes in God, for the person who seeks after God, for the person who tries to live her life so as to honor God, prayer in times of trouble can be rather difficult. Commenting on Psalm 138, biblical scholar John Goldingay says that God’s people live within the dynamic tension between trouble and deliverance.[1] The Bible is filled with testimony about how God delivers his people from trouble. But it is also filled with God’s people living in the midst of trouble – sometimes for years, sometimes for generations. Think of the Israelites in Egypt and Babylon. Think of barren Sarah and Rebekah. Think of David running and hiding for years from King Saul. Think of the Apostle Paul and all the time he spent in jail.

The Psalms are therefore filled with psalms similar to 138 in which the psalmist cries to God for help and salvation. These psalms are evidence that Goldingay is right. Faith in God is no guard against experiencing trouble in our lives. God never promises us a life of complete ease, security and safety. To have faith in God is to trust that God is good and that his intentions for you are good even while living in the midst of trouble. Even while experiencing hardship, oppression, persecution, and even to the point of death. But prayer in such times is not easy. Times of trouble can bring doubts, and unanswered questions, and maybe days and months and even years of waiting. In such times, how does one continue in faith? How does one pray in the midst of trouble?

Psalm 138 doesn’t start out sounding like a prayer by one who is in the midst of trouble. Rather, it begins as if it were a psalm of praise to God by someone who has been delivered from trouble. The psalm beings with a section in which the psalmist praises God before the “gods,” the heavenly beings, because he has answered his prayer. In the second section the psalmist calls upon the kings of the earth to join him in praise because God looks upon the lowly. One would expect that in the third section the psalmist would call God’s people to join him in praise, thus extending the movement from the “gods,” to the kings, to ordinary people. A second option might be for the psalmist to turn the focus on himself and the troubles that God has saved him from, thus giving greater detail for the reason to praise God.

But the psalmist takes an unexpected turn. He turns this psalm of praise into a plea for help. While he began with the past – “When I called, you answered me” – he now speaks in the present – “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life. You stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes.” All of a sudden we realize that the psalmist is praying in the midst of trouble. He has not only needed God in the past, he needs God now. And so his prayer shifts from past, to present, and then to the future with a confession of trust – “The Lord will fulfill his purposes for me” for he knows that the Lord’s “steadfast love endures forever.” On this confession, the psalmist can then, finally lift up his plea: “Do not abandon the works of your hands” “Don’t let the deliverance you brought about before go to waste. You saved me before, therefore follow through and save me again.” “Do not abandon the works of your hands.”

Psalm 138 is an example of a prayer in the midst of trouble, but through it the psalmist also reveals why he is able to pray to God in the midst of trouble. First of all we have to admit that the psalmist is not naïve. He has been in trouble before. So while he can trust God because he has saved him before, that also means that the psalmist is not surprised to find himself in trouble again. If we ever find ourselves in that space in which we doubt God’s goodness, or maybe even his existence because of the trouble we experience, this is a good reminder. Many, many other people of faith have experienced trouble –terrible trouble – and have not lost their faith. I say this not to shrug off our doubts, or to say that you should just have faith and get over it, but simply to say that doubts and questions need not lead us in to unbelief. Others have lived through times of trouble without losing faith. perhaps we can too. So first, the psalmist can pray to God because he expects trouble.

Second, the main reason the psalmist prays to God is because God is a God who cares. God is emotionally invested in his creation and his people. In the first stanza the psalmist praises God “with all my heart” because of God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness.” God is not simply glorious and honorable and mighty and above all other gods, he is all those things because he is a God who relates to his creatures. “Steadfast love and faithfulness” imply that God loves someone else steadfastly and truly. There is an object to God’s goodness. In verses 2-3 God has “exalted his name and his word” by answering the call of the psalmist and delivering him from his trouble. The psalmist knows God cares because God has saved him before. Moreover, God’s words, his promises, are followed through by his actions. His word and his name, which is his honor and reputation and thus his glory, is exalted because God does what he says. And what God has said is that he has promised to be God for his people. God, you see, is glorified and honored because he loves us and redeems us.

The psalmist brings these same themes down from the heavens to the earthly realm in the second stanza. He calls upon the kings to join him in praise of God because God exemplifies what it means to be a good and true monarch – “Though the Lord is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly; though lofty, he sees them from afar.” Not only in Israel, but throughout the Ancient Near East the ideal king was the shepherd of the people, the ruler who cared for the lowly and vulnerable. Once again the psalmist calls upon the kings to praise God for his words in verse 4 which lead to action in verse 6. This God, although he is exalted and lofty, is a loving God who tends his people and his creation as a shepherd watches over his sheep.

The psalmist can turn to God in his time of trouble first because the psalmist knows that we live in a broken world. He expects trouble in life. Second, he prays to God because he knows that God loves his creation and his people. God looks upon the lowly and he answered when I called.

I have called this sermon series, “Prayer from Petition to Contemplation” because I want to encourage us all to see prayer as something more than just asking God for things. As you read through a psalm like this, as you ponder its meaning, as you linger on the words “Though the Lord is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly,” you begin to spend time listening to God instead of talking to God. Prayer is an invitation to spend time with God.

Prayer can thus be turned form something we do by ourselves to something we do with God. When we are so troubled that we can’t find the words to pray the Apostle Paul encourages us in Romans 8 to know that the Holy Spirit prays for us. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26). We also know from the Gospel of John (17) that before Jesus went to the cross, he prayed for his disciples and the whole church. Moreover the books of Romans (8:34) and Hebrews (7:25) teach us that Jesus, risen and ascended to the throne, continues to intercede for us. Our faith is therefore in a God who not only cares for us, but a God who prays with us and for us.

This opens up a deeper way for us to pray. In his book The Dark Night of the Soul, Gerald May writes, “Though we often think of intercessory prayer as praying to God for the sake of someone else, the contemplatives often sense an invitation to pray with God, to share God’s joy and sorrow, which in turn God is sharing with all creation.”[2] AS we live in the tension between trouble and deliverance our praying can become a reflection, an imitation of God himself. We pray for deliverance. We pray for justice for refugees. We pray for a fair and equitable justice system. We pray for healing for ourselves or a loved one. We pray for a child. Or we pray for the healing of a broken relationship. Sometimes our prayers are answered and we can join the psalmist in saying, “When I called, you answered me. … O Lord, your steadfast love endures forever.” We can then share in God’s joy for God delights in deliverance.

But then there are times when we remain in that tension between trouble and deliverance. It is then, that we can reflect the image of God, because our God longs for things too. He longs for us to love one another. He longs for black lives to matter to us as much as white ones. He longs for the church to be a safe place for women and for children. He longs for nations to seek justice and to love mercy. He longs for us to love him and to walk in his ways. Yet in so many ways we don’t. But God waits and he is filled with sorrow for God loves. And Jesus prays. And the Spirit prays. And it is a mystery why, but God is a long-suffering God who occupies that space between trouble and deliverance with us. In prayer we are invited to speak to God, to listen to God, and to enter into that space between trouble and deliverance to pray with God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



[1] John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 3: Psalms 90-150, ed. Tremper Longman III (Baker Academic, 2008), 620.

[2] Gerald G. May, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, Reprint edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2005), 198.

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February 3, 2019 Guest Preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
January 27, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: The Meditations of My Heart
(Psalm 19) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do you all know what this is? It’s a basketball. Now I could tell you how to play the game of basketball. I could tell you that to play the game you have to dribble the ball, or bounce it up and down, you have to pass the ball to your teammates, and you have to shoot the ball into the hoop to score a point. I could also show you how to dribble, and pass, and shoot. But you wouldn’t know how to play basketball until you learned how to do all those things.

And that is the way it is with a lot of things in life. I could tell you and show you how to play the piano, but you wouldn’t know how to play the piano until you actually do it. I could tell you and show you how to sing, but you wouldn’t know how to sing until you actually learn to sing. Well it’s the same way with loving God and with knowing that God loves us. We can say that we love God, but we don’t really love God until we praise him and give him thanks for all that he has made and all the ways he provides for us. We can say that we love God, but we don’t really love God until we obey God’s commands.

But the wonderful thing is when we do those things, when we praise and thank God for who he is and what he has done, and when we obey him and walk in his ways we come to know that God loves us. That’s because when we praise and thank God for what he has done, we see that he has done so much for us. It is sort of like when you thanks your mom or your dad for the dinner they cooked and you tell them how good it is, you know that they cooked it because they love you. And when we obey God’s commands, we come to know that God’s commands are good for us. We come to know that God gives us his commands because he loves us and he knows what is best for us.

And then, when we know God loves us because we know all that he has done for us, we can know God’s love in his forgiveness. Sometimes, even though we want to and we try to follow God’s commands, we don’t do very well. Sometimes we disobey God. But then, because we have known God’s love in these other ways, we can be confident that we can ask God for forgiveness. And then we will know God loves us as we receive his forgiveness.
[End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

“Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may live on your holy mountain” the psalmist asks in Psalm 15. “The one whose walk is blameless,” he answers. In Psalm 24 the psalmist asks, “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?” “The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.”

Last week I argued that the heart of prayer is coming to rest in the steadfast love of God. The center of prayer is thus knowing and experiencing the very presence of God. The questions posed by the psalmist point to the same thing – “Who may dwell in your tabernacle?” “Who may stand in his holy place?” Who may be in the presence of God? What does it take?

While the psalmist seems to give a simple answer after asking the question – only those who are blameless and pure may stand in the presence of God – the structure of the psalms from Psalm 15 to Psalm 24 indicates that the answer is a bit more complex. Moreover, if you read Psalm 14 the simple answer falls apart. “The fools says in his heart, ‘There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are evil; there is no one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on all humankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no on who does good, no not even one.

It is no wonder then that the psalmist next asks, “Well, then who can dwell in your tabernacle? Who can live on our holy mountain? If all have done evil, if all are corrupt, if no one seeks God, who can stand in God’s holy place?” Psalm 14 complicates the simple answers of Psalms 15 and 24 – if all are corrupt, is there anyone who is blameless? Is there anyone who is pure?

It has been suggested that Psalms 15 through 24 form a Hebrew literary device called a chiasm. A chiasm is series of repeated words, phrases, or themes that form something like a pyramid (see Illustration #1, turning it on its side). As we have seen, Psalms 15 and 24 ask the question, “Who may be in God’s presence,” and provide the initial answer, “Those who are blameless and pure.” As you read through the next psalms it is as if the psalmist is climbing up the holy mountain toward God’s presence through various kinds of prayer. Psalms 16 and 23 are psalms that seek God’s refuge and/or express trust that God will keep one safe. Psalms 17 and 22 are lament psalms in which the psalmist cries out for help in the face his enemies. And psalms 18 and 21 are psalms of praise for God’s redemption of the psalmist in 18 and of the king in 21. The indication seems to be that those who are blameless and pure demonstrate this by trusting in God, crying to him for help, and then praising God for his deliverance.

But what then do we find at the top of the pyramid? What happens in psalms 19 and 20? In Psalm 20 we find another mini chiasm. The psalm begins with a section in which the psalmist blesses the king, “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress”. The psalm ends not with a whole section but with only one verse with a plea that echoes the blessing: “Lord, give victory to the King. Answer us when we call?” At the top or center of this mini chiasm, then is a section in which the psalmist confesses complete trust in God: “This I know, the Lord gives victory to his anointed.”

In Psalm 19 we find not a chiasm, but something like a rhythmic pyramid (see Illustration #2, and think of turning the psalm upside down). You will notice that I have inverted the psalm, so it reads from bottom to top. Meter is very important in Hebrew poetry. Poetic lines are usually made up of two and sometimes three smaller lines, that’s why you often see every other line indented. The point is that the two or three lines go together, expanding the meaning of each, interpreting the meaning of each. Sometimes words in one or both phrases will carry over into the other. Each line usually has a similar number of accents or “beats” and the poem will often thus display a rhythm such as 3:3, or 3:2. The poet can thus shape the poem rhythmically, adding emphasis by breaking the rhythm or showing a change in theme by changing the rhythm.

Psalm 19 begins with line pairs with 4 accents each, or 8 in the verse. It soon moves down from 8 to 7 and then ends the first section of the psalm with a line pair of 3 accents per line, or 6 beats. We can get a feel for the rhythmic nature of the psalm even in English when we read verses 7 to 9 regarding the law of the Lord. We can sense a longer first line and a shorter second line of each pair. In the Hebrew the pattern is 3:2. The peak of the pyramid comes in verse 10: “They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold. They are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.” These lines have a 2:2 rhythm, or 4 beats per line pair which is half the number of beats of the beginning of the psalm. At the top of the pyramid this pattern is broken and the rhythmic structure becomes more varied.

So what do we make of all this? What is the point? We often approach this psalm in terms of God’s revelation. In the Reformed tradition we like to talk of the two books of revelation – God reveals himself in nature, through creation and through scripture, the law. The problem with this is that while sometimes “law” or “torah” in the Hebrew refers to the first five books of the Bible, and thus by extension the whole of God’s story with Israel, the whole revelation of scripture, here it is pretty clear that the psalmist means the laws and commandments and decrees of God. The psalmist is not talking about all of scripture. The point of the psalm is therefore not that there are two books of revelation.

The first section, however, is about how the whole creation reveals the glory and knowledge of God. The psalmist repeats a technique we saw a couple of weeks ago in which two extremes indicate not just the extremes but also everything in between. The heavens in verse 1 are the transcendent heavens, the heavenly heavens, while the skies are the “firmament” from Genesis 1, the earthly heaven, thus all the heavens declare God’s glory. In verse 2 both day and night, and thus all of time, reveals knowledge of God. Their voice goes out not just into “all the earth,” but also to “the ends of the earth.” The whole creation declares the glory and the knowledge of God.

The psalmist then presents the sun as a particular example. Its brilliance reflects the glory of God as it runs rejoicing across the heavens shedding its warmth on all things. God’s glory is thus revealed in the life that is provided by and supported by the sun and given to all creation.

This first section on the glory and knowledge of God revealed in the creation thus forms the foundation on which the next section is built. God’s glory is revealed through the life-giving creation, but also through his life-giving law. The law of God is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, and firm. Therefore it refreshes the soul, gives joy and light. It makes wise the simple. In short the law gives life for biblical wisdom is the practical knowledge of how best to live within God’s creation. To have wisdom, to obey God’s laws, is to live with the grain of the universe.

So the psalmist proclaims how the whole creation demonstrates the knowledge and glory of God. He then gives an example of how the sun in particular does this by shedding its life-giving warmth upon all things. The psalmist then proclaims how God’s law also gives life to human beings. He then looks around for a particular example. He looks around for a being who walks according to God’s ways, a being who is blameless and pure and so can stand in God’s presence, reflect his glory, and reveal knowledge about God.

But the psalmist asks “Who can discern their own errors?” The palmist recognizes that he has not been pure and blameless. He has not kept the life-giving law of God. He has not lived according to the grain of the universe. He is not the example he is looking for. Verse 12 can also be translated, “Who can discern his own wanderings?” Why, the psalmist asks, do we humans continually turn away from what we know is good? The psalmist therefore pleads with God. “Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins.” Which can also be translated, “Keep your servant from insolent people (who will lead him astray). Either way the psalmist seeks God’s protection, pleading, “may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.”

The psalmist recognizes that the only way to be pure and blameless is to cast himself into the merciful and gracious hands of God. The only way to be an example of God’s life giving ways and to reveal his glory, is to become a revelation of his grace and mercy. If the heart of prayer is to know and experience God’s steadfast love, we come to know that steadfast love through God’s grace and mercy. Having cast himself into the grace of God, the psalmist can only add one more plea: “May they be pleasing – the words of my mouth / and the meditations of my heart – in your sight.” And then a final confession of trust, “O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

If we look back at illustration 1, then, we can see that at the center of the chiasm, or the top of the pyramid, we have two psalms that center on absolute trust and confidence in the grace of God. In Psalm 19 the psalmist casts himself onto the mercy and grace of God. In Psalm 20 the psalmist blesses the King with the assurance that he can call upon God for deliverance, followed by a confession of trust, and a plea that God would make good on the blessing and the confession – “Lord, give victory to the king! Answer us when we call!”

Sometimes we can approach the spiritual disciplines and prayer as techniques to place us in God’s presence. Or maybe we see prayer or scripture reading as a duty we have to fulfill to stay in God’s good graces. We might approach them as if we are trudging up a mountain trying to obtain God’s favor. The funny things is, however, that if we actually practice prayer and seek after God, we will likely come to that point in which we reach the top of the mountain and come to the same realization as the psalmist. “I am not pure. I am not blameless. I have not followed the live giving law of God. I have not lived according to the grain of the universe.”

It is then that God invites us to cast ourselves upon his grace. If we do, if we give up attempting to earn our own salvation, if we let go of our need to maintain control of our lives, we will find ourselves falling into God’s steadfast love, receiving his mercy, and having his grace fall upon us. We can then descend down the mountain, continuing in prayer and the other spiritual disciplines in order to live our lives in the world as one who continues to live in the presence of God delighting in his law and rejoicing in his creation. We then live and play and work in the world as one whom God considers pure and blameless, not because we are pure and blameless, but because have come to know God’s grace and his steadfast love. In this way our lives become revelations of the glory and knowledge of God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Silence

Almighty and merciful God,

In the beginning you spoke

  and by your word all things came into being.

     You redeemed Israel from slavery

       and gave them new life through your law.

           Grant us eternal life in your presence

             through your steadfast love and mercy.

     May the words of our mouths

       and the meditations of our hearts

       be pleasing in your sight.

O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen

 

Illustration 1: Structure of Psalms 16-24

15 Who may dwell in your temple? Those who … are blameless

16 … trust in God – Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.

17 … cry for help – Hear me, Lord, my plea is just”

18 … praise God – The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.

19 … ?

20 … May the Lord answer you when you are in distress

This I know, The Lord gives victory to his anointed

Lord, answer us when we call?

21 … praise God – The king rejoices in your strength, Lord.

22 … cry for help –You are my strength, come quickly to help me (v.19)

23 … trust in God  – “The Lord is my shepherd.”

24 Who may stand in your holy place? Those who … are pure

 

Illustration 2:  Psalm 19 – Accents or “beats” per line

O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

and the meditations of my heart -  in your sight

May they be pleasing - the words of my mouth

5      Then I will be blameless,                            innocent of great transgression.

5      Keep your servant also from willful sins;       may they not rule over me.

4      But who can discern their own errors?  Forgive my hidden faults.

6      By them your servant is warned;                      in keeping them there is great reward.

4      they are sweeter than honey,                    than honey from the honeycomb.

4      They are more precious than gold,                  than much pure gold;

5      The decrees of the Lord are firm,                     and all of them are righteous.

5      The fear of the Lord is pure,                              enduring forever.

5      The commands of the Lord are radiant,  giving light to the eyes.

5      The precepts of the Lord are right,          giving joy to the heart.

5      The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,       making wise the simple.

5      The law of the Lord is perfect,                  refreshing the soul.

6      and makes its circuit to the other;           nothing is deprived of its warmth.

7      like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens

7      In the heavens God has pitched .             it is like a bridegroom coming out

a tent for the sun of his chamber,

7      Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,     their words to the ends of the world.

7      They have no speech, they use no words;       no sound is heard from them.

8      Day after day they pour forth speech;    night after night they reveal knowledge.

8      The heavens declare the glory of God;   the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

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January 20, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: The Heart of Prayer
(Psalm 36) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do you know what these are? [a handful of letters] But do you know what happened to them? We sent these letters out to a whole bunch of people who used to attend Hessel Park Church. Inside there is a newsletter that tells people what has been happening here at the church over the past year. Well these letters didn’t get to where they were supposed to go. Most of them were sent back to us because the people moved away so they no longer live at the address we have for them. Some of them were sent back because we forgot to put a stamp on the envelope.

But do you know how they got sent back to us? How did the mail carrier know to bring these letters back to Hessel Park Church? Look up in this corner and you can see that our address is right there. That is how you are supposed to mail a letter. You put the stamp here, the address you want the letter to go to here, and your own address here. That way if there ever is a problem, if the people have moved, or you made a mistake with the address, or you didn’t put enough stamps on the letter, the letter will get sent back to its home.

In Psalm 36 the psalmist says, “How priceless is your steadfast love, O God! Heavenly beings and human beings take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (7). If you know God’s steadfast love, if you know that God loves you and that he is always faithful to you, then it is like have a return address printed on your heart. Wherever you go, whatever happens to you, you will always be able to return home. Because our true home is in the love of God. [End of children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Last week we saw how words have power. Psalm 29 bears witness to the powerful voice of the Lord which created the universe by bounding up the primordial waters of chaos and which still rings out over the creation, commanding the forces of nature, and bringing the blessings of strength and peace to God’s people. Last week we focused on how God’s words have power over the creation and over us. God’s voice and spirit empowered Jesus at his baptism when the Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove and a voice rang out from heaven. “You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” God’s voice rings in our hearts through our baptism, assuring us that he loves us and that his desire is to bless us. God’s words are powerful.

This morning I would like us to consider how our words are powerful too. Yes, they are powerful in that they can be used to harm others. And yes our words are also powerful in that they can be used for good, to console, comfort, affirm and love others. But our words are also powerful for good or ill with regard to ourselves.

Psalm 36 begins with what might be called an anatomy of wicked speech. Translators, however, can’t agree on verse 1.. The NIV and the New King James read something like, “An oracle is within my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked.” The King James and ASV read, “The transgressions of the wicked sayeth within my heart.” And the NRSV “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts.”

Old Testament scholar John Goldingay notes that the word for speak is “utterance.” The reason this causes translators so much trouble is that it is mostly used in prophetic writings such as in, “ thus says the Lord,” or an “an oracle of the prophet.”  It makes no sense, therefore, to connect this word to the wicked. The wicked are not supposed utter the words of God. Goldingay therefore translates the phrase, “The rebellious utterance of the faithless.”[1] The psalmist uses “utterance” to highlight the truly wicked nature of the words of the wicked. The psalmist is therefore deeply concerned with the utterance of the wicked. He says, “it is in the midst of my heart.” We would say that their words are ringing in our ears. Their words are churning up his insides.

Does this every happen to you? An adversary criticizes you in a way that twists the truth and makes you look bad in the eyes of others. Her words swirl around inside you like a tempest. You hear the words of some politician on the television. You know that he is lying through his teeth, and so his words remain unsettled in your heart. You can’t stop dwelling on the words because you don’t’ know how they are going to pan out. How will they affect your life? What kinds of actions will they lead to?

The psalmist is worried about the words of the wicked first of all because of their effect on the wicked themselves. The boastful, rebellious words of the faithless first of all deceive not others but the faithless themselves. Verse 2, “For it, the words, flatters and deceives them in their own eyes.” They fool themselves into thinking that their lies and boasts won’t be “found out and opposed.” We see the result of this in verse 1, “There is no fear of God before their eyes,” which is why Goldingay calls these folks the “faithless,” pinpointing the nature of their wickedness.

In verse 3 the psalmist spells out the nature of their words more clearly. Their words are “wicked and deceitful” so they lead to a failure to act in wise and good ways. The psalmist helps define “wicked and deceitful” by contrasting them to “wise and good.” That which is wicked is not wise for wisdom is that which conforms to God’s ways. That which is good does conform to God’s ways and so the good is also truthful. That which is wicked is therefore also deceitful.  In verse 4 the failure to act in good ways leads the faithless to begin getting ready to commit evil. “Even on their beds they plot evil; they commit themselves to a sinful course and do not reject what is wrong.”

The psalmist notes this progression from the boastful, deceitful, and rebellious words to the plotting of evil and then to actual harmful and hateful actions. In verse 11 the psalmist lays out his fears before God and so he pleads to God, “May the foot of the proud not come against me, nor the hands of the wicked drive me away.” If you remember from the last couple of weeks, God’s justice and righteousness where characterized by God lifting up the vulnerable and being faithful to his people. Goodness raises people up and gathers them in. Here the psalmist fears that the wicked will push him down and “drive him away.”

The psalmist sees how the rebellious boastful words of the wicked harm themselves in that the words deceive the wicked and then lead them toward doing wicked things. The psalm concludes in verse 12 with how the words of the wicked may not only lead to the harm of others, but also to a sad fate for themselves. “See how the evildoer lies fallen – thrown down, not able to rise!” One of the things that troubles people about the Psalms is verses such as verse 12. We become uncomfortable when the psalmist’s fear of or anger against the wicked leads him to call upon God to bring harm to his enemies. Almost always, however, when the psalmist does this, the psalmist simply asks that the evil deeds the wicked plan to do or are doing against him fall back upon the wicked. The psalmist fears the attempts of the faithless to push him down and drive him away, so he prays that this fate would be turned around upon the wicked themselves. Ultimately the wicked words of the faithless lead them to do wicked things only to have those same things happen to them. Words have power not only to harm others but also ourselves.

Notice, however, that the conclusion of the psalm includes verse 10 as well. The palmist compares his own voice with the voice of the faithless. While the faithless utter wicked and deceitful things, which demonstrate rebelliousness against God, the psalmist turns to God for help because he proclaims the goodness of God: “Continue your steadfast love to those who know you, your faithfulness to the upright in heart.” While the words of the faithless flatter themselves, the words of the psalmist praise the God of heaven and declare the psalmist’s faith in the Lord. The real contrast is thus between the faithlessness of the wicked and the faithfulness of God.

This then gets at the main theme of the psalm – God’s steadfast love demonstrates his faithfulness to his people. The main body of the poem, verses 5-9 consists of two smaller sections. Verses 5-7a proclaim the nature of God’s steadfast love and verses 7b -9 declare the results of God’s steadfast love.

In verses 5-7a the psalmists uses a common technique of Hebrew literature in which two poles, or ends of things, are mentioned to indicate not just the ends, but everything in between. The heavens in 5a refer to what lies beyond the world we live in, while the skies to the highest portions of our world – thus all that is above us, all the heavens, both the heavenly heavens and the earthly heavens. In verse 6 the highest mountains are the highest point of the earth, and the depths are the lowest point of the of the earth, so the psalmist includes both the heights and the depths and all that lies in between. God’s steadfast love and truthfulness and faithfulness and justice encompass the whole created order, the whole earth and the whole of the heavens.

As we saw a couple of weeks ago in psalm 72, and earlier in this psalm, the pairing of words defines and expands the meaning of those words. In verse 5 we therefore see that God’s steadfast love is truthful. It conforms to reality for God’s love is the basis of reality. All things that are flow out of God’s steadfast love. I argued two weeks ago that God’s righteousness is displayed through his faithfulness to his people. Here Goldingay has translated righteousness as faithfulness. Once again in verse 6 we find this word, righteous faithfulness, paired with God’s justice. God demonstrates his righteous faithfulness to his people by executing his justice – lifting up the poor and protecting the vulnerable. We see another theme repeated at the end of verse 6. God’s loving, faithful, just power is purposeful for the Lord “preserves both people and animals” which means all living creatures. The psalmist ends this mini-section returning to the theme: How priceless is your steadfast love, O God.”

In the next section the psalmist expands on the purposefulness of God’s steadfast love. A creaturely pair of opposites “heavenly beings and human beings” expands the scope of God’s care. Here we can assume that human beings are representing the animals mentioned in verse 6 for humans were made to be stewards over creation. Just as God’s steadfast love, truthfulness, faithfulness, and justice extend from the heavenly heavens to the lowest depths of the earth, so they are applied to all those creatures who inhabit the created order from the heavenly beings to humans to the lowest of animals. For all these creatures “take refuge in the shadow of [God’s] wings”

In verses 8 and 9 the psalmist contrasts the wicked actions of the faithless to the loving actions of a faithful God. The wicked push people down and drive them away. God, in verse 8, invites and gathers all creatures into his temple, God’s house. There God treats them to a feast, but not just any feast, an abundant feast with “drink from your river of delights.”  God is not only a refuge for any and all, he is “the fountain of life” for “in your light we see light.”

Now we see the full contrast. The rebellious words of the faithless lead them towards deceit and lies, to the plotting of evil, and finally to actual deeds of evil – putting down and driving away the weak and vulnerable. In contrast the faithful words of the psalmist proclaim the steadfast love of the Lord who demonstrates truth and justice and faithful righteous by gathering in any and all creatures who need refuge and by blessing them with abundant life. The rebellious words of the faithless lead to their own eventual destruction. Their evil plots fall upon themselves. The words of the psalmist, however, lead the psalmist to trust in the steadfast love of God and thus lead the psalmist to a place of refuge, a place where he can call upon God as the faithless act against him.

One of the difficulties we may have in reading the Psalms or praying the Psalms is that we may find it hard to identify with the situation of the psalmist. Who of us identifies with verse 11? Who feels the foot of an oppressor pressed up against her neck? Who feels the hand of the powerful driving him away? But if we don’t identify with the situation of the psalmist personally, we certainly can identify many who would. The United Nations Refugee Agency maintains that there are roughly 25.5 million refugees in the world, over half of whom come from Syria, Afghanistan and the Sudan. In addition they claim there are over 40 million people who are internally displaced within their own country and over 3 million people who are seeking asylum. We have all seen the pictures of those from Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador seeking asylum at the borders of the United States. By praying through this psalm, we can pray that the feet of those who are trying to keep them down may not come against them. And that the hands that are trying to push them out of their own homes and away from places of refuge would fail.

We can also recognize those in our time who speak out against those in need of refuge. The word of those who use deceit and foolish talk to pervert the cause of justice for their own gain churn around in our hearts. We can pray that those who utter such things may have their plans thwarted by God and come to nothing so that justice may be done. Just as the psalmist speaks mainly not about himself or his own needs but about the character and nature of God, the psalm invites us to turn away from our own needs, to think of the needs of others, and to meditate upon the steadfast love of God which is for all people and all his creatures.

We thus come to what I believe is the heart of prayer. Sometimes you may see the word “steadfast love” as “loving kindness.” Most translations go with “steadfast love” here in order to emphasize the faithful aspect of God’s love. God’s love is the bedrock of the psalm and thus the bedrock of the life of the psalmist. The psalmist trusts in the love of God for it is truthful, faithful, righteous, and just. It is on the rock of God’s love that the psalmist stands as he faces the threatening foot and hands of the wicked and seeks refuge in God.

This psalm then not only invites us to pray for others. It invites us to come to the heart of prayer - the rock of God’s steadfast love. Perhaps you don’t feel vulnerable today as the psalmist does. Perhaps you are not threatened today by the foot of an oppressor, but the psalm invites us to recognize that we are all, ultimately, equally vulnerable. Not one of us is invincible. Not one of us is self-sufficient. One day we may be tossed into a situation in which we need a place of refuge – a place of physical refuge, or of financial refuge, of emotional refuge, or of spiritual refuge. We move towards the heart of prayer by voicing our trust in the steadfast love of God and simply by experiencing our trust in the steadfast love of God, so that God begins to take up residence in our hearts.

The true heart of prayer, however, is the recognition that we are all, already in that place of vulnerability where we need the refuge of God’s steadfast love. The heart of prayer is this turn away from trust in our own resources, trust in our own “goodness,” trust in our own abilities, to resting in the only thing that give us security, safety, and even life itself – the steadfast love of God. It is then that we truly experience that shadow of God’s wings hovering over us giving us the felt knowledge of a place of refuge. It is then that we find that we are truly at home in the temple of God’s love. And there we begin to feast on the abundance of God’s goodness and drink from his river of delights. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Almighty Creator, your steadfast love reaches to the heavens,

            Your truthfulness to the skies,

Your faithfulness is like the highest mountains

            And your mercy is greater than the depths.

Turn our eyes upon you

So that we might rest in your blessings

            And bear witness to your goodness.

Through Jesus Christ

            who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

            One God, now and forever. Amen.



[1] John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 1: Psalms 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), pp. 505-513.

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January 13, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: The Voice of the Lord
(Psalm 29) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] There is a saying that goes like this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Have you ever heard that saying before? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We often say this when someone has been teasing someone else. Maybe someone calls you a name or makes fun of you. Someone might say this to remind you that just because someone says something mean about you, it doesn’t mean it is true. You can choose to ignore what someone says about you.

Sometimes this saying can be helpful, but I am not certain that it is fully true. Words do hurt, don’t they? It is one thing if someone you don’t know very well says something mean, but it’s another thing if someone you care about says something that hurts you. Words have the power to cause people harm. We have to be careful how we use our words. We don’t want to use our words to hurt others, right? But if words can hurt others, it also means that words have power for good too. When we say kind things to people, words have the power to make others feel good about themselves. When you tell your parents you love them, I am sure that it makes their day.

In our gospel lesson this morning John the Baptist baptizes Jesus in the River Jordan. And as Jesus was praying, it says that “heaven opened …. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.’” Words are powerful. Even Jesus needed to hear his heavenly Father tell him that he loved him.

And you know what? The same thing happens to us at our baptism. Now we don’t actually hear a voice from heaven, but when we are baptized it is a sign that God claims us as his children. It means that God says to us, “You are my son. You are my daughter. I love you.” Now I know that you haven’t been baptized yet, but your parents have. God has claimed them as his children. And just as your grandparents love you because you are their child’s daughter, so God loves you because you are his child’s daughter. So when you come to church on Sundays, and when I pour water into this bowl, listen to God saying to you, “I love you.” Those are powerful words that we all need to hear. [End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

The psalmist envisions the heavenly beings assembled in the heavenly temple to worship the God of creation. It’s possible that the heavenly beings witnessed the creation of the universe. They were there in the beginning when all was a formless void, a great sea over which the breath of God hovered. They heard the powerful voice of the Lord speak out over the waters and watched as the waters parted into the waters above and the waters below. They heard the voice of the Lord speak again and the waters below parted so that the earth appeared.

Now they continue to listen to the voice of the Lord as it calls forth a thunderstorm. The storm barrels down upon the land of Israel from the north. The winds bend and break the giant cedars of Lebanon. The storm stirs up the wild animals on Mount Hermon. The skies light up and the winds howl as it roars through Samaria, down through Judea and off to the south into the Desert of Kadesh leaving a path of fallen trees in its wake. “And all in his temple cry, ‘Glory.’”

In the silence, after the storm, the psalmist listens as the heavenly beings answer his call and ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood,

The Lord is enthroned as King forever.

The Lord gives strength to his people

The Lord blesses his people with peace.” (10-11)

The heavenly beings in this psalm, as elsewhere in the Old Testament, are literally called “the sons of the gods” in the Hebrew. While the Old Testament is clear that there is only one, true God, it does testify to the existence of other spiritual beings. There are hints that some of these beings may be assigned to watch over the various nations. They may have various powers themselves, but here, these heavenly beings are paying homage to the one, true God. They proclaim that this one, true God is all powerful. He reigns over the primordial waters which symbolized chaos. He reigns over the powers of nature. He simply speaks and the waters and the winds and the rains and the thunder and lightning obey.

The psalmist thus hints at a comparison between the God of Israel and the gods of the pagan nations. In the creation stories of the nations that surround Israel, the gods have to struggle and battle with Chaos in order to overcome her. The voice of the Lord, however, is over the waters. The various gods each claim a particular place within the creation. There is a storm god, a god of the wind, a god of the sea and so on. The heavenly beings in the psalm ascribe all these powers to the Lord.

The heavenly beings display no powers themselves in the psalm. They act only as a congregation of witnesses to the glorious power of God. They proclaim that the God whose spirit hovered over the primordial waters now sits enthroned over any remnants of those chaotic waters. “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood,” they proclaim. Last week we saw how God’s executes his justice by watching over and lifting up the weak and vulnerable, and that he displays his righteousness through his faithfulness to his people Israel and through Israel to all the nations. The heavenly beings now testify that God’s power and authority has purpose. God sits enthroned over the chaotic waters of the flood in order to give strength to his people, in order to bless his people with peace. While the Psalm focuses on Israel, the presence of the heavenly beings encourages us to fill in the blanks. The Lord blesses his people with peace in order to bless the nations with peace.

In our secular world we no longer speak much of heavenly beings. We no longer ascribe the power of the wind and the rain to various gods. Yet we remain surrounded by, pressed in by, sometimes overwhelmed by forces that seem transcendent. The market report comes on every morning at 6:50 and I hear about how the market forces are moving stocks up or down, how the forces of supply and demand are moving the prices of various commodities, and how the labor market is driving wages up or down. We are moved by numerous isms - nationalism, environmentalism, patriotism, socialism – either in pursuit of their goals or in fear of them. Personally we are motivated by desires that sometimes seem larger than ourselves – love, hate, envy, fear, the desire for success. While we have cut ourselves off from the transcendent in this secular age, we still feel pressed by forces beyond our control.

The psalmist reminds us that the Lord God sits enthroned over all these forces that threaten to overwhelm us, to control us, or to misguide us. God need only speak and they will flee away like the calf skipping in Lebanon. The psalmist invites us to sit before the throne of God with the calm assurance that he reigns over all creation, and that he blesses his people with strength and peace. The psalmist invites us into a space of prayer.

Last week I encouraged us to engage in prayer through meditation, to move beyond prayer as mere petition, to something that that is more than just asking God for things. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century mystic, taught that there were three stages of the life of prayer and of the spiritual life in general which she called three islands. On the first island prayer mainly takes the form of petitions and the rote prayers we learn in church or at the table before a meal. On this island God is experienced as and believed to be distant from us, up there in heaven. We call out to the God who is up there so that he might pay attention to us down here.

Last week I encouraged you to begin your prayers with meditation and then to move back to petition. On the second island prayer mainly takes the form of meditation. While Teresa speaks of three islands, it is not as if we don’t move back and forth between them. Spiritual growth and transformation is not a linear process and no matter how much we grow, there will always be a time and place for petitionary prayer, but on the second island prayer becomes more and more meditative. Likewise a person begins to experience God within themselves. One senses the leading and guiding of the Spirit. Not always. Not every minute. But at times one becomes conscious of God’s presence within.

I have named this sermon series after the progression of these three islands for on the third island one experiences prayer as contemplation. In contemplative prayer there is less and less actual thought. One is not meditating on the words of scripture or the character of God. One simply is aware of God’s presence and one contemplates by simply resting in that presence. On this island one experiences God more and more in terms of union with God.

Before I continue let me state a few caveats. First, while these islands speak of a progression of prayer and of spiritual transformation, I don’t want to suggest that this path of meditative and contemplative prayer is the only route to spiritual transformation. There are plenty of other saints in the history of the Christian church who did not follow Teresa of Avila or the other mystics. Hear this as an invitation and not a mandate. Second, while I am speaking from some personal experience, I am by all accounts still a novice. Each of us follows our own path in spiritual transformation so we can learn from each other. Third, the path one travels in spiritual formation is always a response to God’s gracious invitation and is not something that one can manufacture or control. It is, therefore, non-linear, not always moving “forward” so to speak, and is filled with fits and starts and what seems like backsliding.

Fourth, if you are seeking after God, if you are desiring to be transformed into the image of Christ, you are on that path where you need to be. God directs and guides this process. While I have heard God’s invitation to meditative and contemplative prayer for years, I had to be prepared to be able to answer the invitation. When I came here I was so extroverted the thought of sitting alone in silence terrified me. But after years of studying scripture, preparing worship, writing sermons, reading books on theology, and fits and starts of meditative prayer, all alone in my study, I have become more at home by myself and more comfortable with silence. I had to be changed in order to answer the invitation. And it is not as though I am more a child of God than I was before. I am not more saved than I was 17 years ago. But by God’s grace I am being transformed.

These islands, you see, are not just different techniques of prayer that one can learn. They are experiences of prayer that coincide with spiritual growth and transformation. Our petitionary prayers, for instance, particularly when one is spiritually young, are often focused on our needs and our desires. As one matures spiritually, our prayers are less and less driven by our ego. This is why prayer as meditation is the next step for our meditation is not upon ourselves but on God and God’s word. As a person matures spiritually, the old, ego driven and also sinful self, begins to die away. This is what Paul talks about in the dying of the old self and what Jesus speaks of when he calls us to deny ourselves and take up our cross. As one experiences prayer as contemplation, the old ego driven self disappears as one totally surrenders to God and to God’s presence.

The psalmist invites us into that space of prayer where we can begin to make this journey from one island to the next. He invites us to rest as though we were before the throne of God filled with the knowledge that God reigns over all things. He invites us into that space where we trust that God protects us and that he desires to bless us. It is when we enter that space of trust that we can begin letting go of our ego-driven self. We can begin dying to our old selves which are so tempted to follow after the “gods” of our world’s isms and our own sinful desires.

This space is much like that space that Jesus occupies as he is praying after his baptism. It is in this space that we too can hear the voice of God – the powerful, comforting, gracious voice of God – saying, “You are my daughter. You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” These are powerful words that we all need to hear. These are the words that enable us to die to ourselves so that Christ may be born in us and that our lives may proclaim the glory of God. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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January 6, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: Global Flourishing Justice
(Psalm 72) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s worship] Once upon a time there was a little girl named Tanya. As she and her mother walked to the bus stop on the first day after the Christmas holidays her mother asked her if she was looking forward to going back to school or if she was sad that the holidays were over. “Both,” Tanya said. “I liked seeing all my cousins, and my aunts and uncles, and Grandma and Grandpa, too. I liked the presents and the cookies and all the singing, but I miss my friends. I like learning about numbers and letters.” “What do you like most about school?” her mom asked as the bus pulled up. “Art class,” she said as she climbed aboard. “I like coloring and painting and making things.” And she ran down the aisle to find her seat.

On the way home from the bus stop, Tanya’s mom asked her how her day went. “Good and bad,” she said. “The kids on the bus teased me. They made fun of my pig tails and my coat and even my new shoes.” “How did that make you feel?” her mom asked. Tanya stopped and looked at a bush that they were passing. “Like this,” she said. [Indicates a dried and shriveled up poinsettia] “But the rest of the day was good,” she said. “Maria and I worked on our letters together and I played with Tyquan and Maya during play time. But best of all Miss Johnson told me she really like my painting.”  “And how did that make you feel?” her mom asked. Tanya stopped again and pointed to another plant. “Like this,” she said. [Indicates a healthy poinsettia]

People are a lot like plants. Plants need water and soil and sunshine. When they get what they need, they grow and they look full and green and colorful. When they don’t get these things, they shrivel up, or they turn yellow, and they look scraggly. Plants need water, soil and sunshine; People need kindness and friendship and love.

In our Psalm today the psalmist asks God to teach the King how to rule with justice and righteousness. That is, how to rule over the people with goodness and kindness. If the king does that, the psalmist says the land will grow and produce lots of fruit. It will be like this [healthy poinsettia]. When people treat each other well and love one another, then all of us do better. We grow and are able to do good things.

Now sometimes people are kind and loving to us, and sometimes they are not. But God always loves us. God always loves us because he wants us to grow and do good things. He also loves us because he wants us to love others so they too can grow and do good things. He wants us all to be like this. [End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Over the Advent season we looked at the spiritual discipline of waiting. For those of you who were not here on Christmas Eve, I ended the series by looking at Mary who “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Mary exhibits the posture of Christian waiting. After nine months of waiting for the birth of her child, she now will spend years waiting to see how “all these things” will pan out – the words of Gabriel, the song of Zechariah, the song of the angels, that her son has been called “Son of God,” “Son of the Most High,” and “God with us.”

Treasuring the hints of God’s presence, the promises of God, the wonders that God does, and pondering them in your heart is a description of a kind of prayer. And this kind of prayer is the posture of our waiting. Now this is not the prayer that we are accustomed too. We usually think of prayer as asking God for things. But if you look at the actual examples of prayer in the scriptures, and not just in the psalms, you will notice that the content of most prayer is a retelling of the wondrous acts of God, or recalling the characteristics of God, that God is just and loving and kind and ever faithful. The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving which we say before communion is like this too. Let me suggest that most of the prayers of scripture and the psalms are carefully crafted works of poetry that were written after the authors spent time in meditative prayer, treasuring “these things” up and pondering them in their hearts.

Many of you know that I have spent the last four years attending quarterly retreats on the spiritual disciplines with other pastors and church leaders. The elders have therefore suggested that I do a sermon series on prayer. The problem with doing a sermon series on prayer, however, is that there are very few texts in the scriptures that reveal what the practice of prayer is actually all about. We get hints that the psalmists mediated on God’s law, which is really the Torah, or the first five books of the Bible. They are meditating not just on the various laws we find in the Bible, but the whole story of God’s pursuit of fallen humanity through Israel. In the New Testament we get hints that Jesus and the apostles, particularly Paul, spent time in solitude, presumably also in silence meditating on God’s word. But we never get instruction on how to go about the practice of prayer. Jesus gives us the Lord’s prayer, but he never tells his disciples what he does when he goes off by himself for a whole night for prayer. How then, does one preach on prayer?

I think what we have to do is to work backwards from the prayer, which we have this morning as Psalm 72, to what it was that the psalmist was meditating on. What, in other words, does the psalm reveal about the nature of God? What traits of God would lead to the petitions the psalmist voices? What mighty acts inspired the poetry? What things did the psalmist treasure up and ponder in his heart?

And so let us take a look at Psalm 72 A careful examination of Psalm 72 reveals that the psalmist weaves 3 themes in and out of 3 different sections.

In the first section, verses 1-7, the psalmist weaves together the first two themes: that the King would rule with justice and righteousness, and that the earth would flourish. Now we often think of righteousness as merely doing what is right and lawful. A righteous person is someone who obeys the law and hasn’t done anything wrong. We also think of justice as people just getting what you deserve. Justice happens when those who behave well, the righteous, get rewarded for their good behavior and when those who behave badly, the unrighteous, get punished. But that is not how the psalmist views justice and righteousness.

If we assume that the psalmist has been pondering the works of the Lord, if he has been meditating on the Torah, then he prays that the king be endowed with justice and righteousness so that he that the king will reflect the justice and righteousness of God.  The King is God’s ambassador, his steward over his people, Israel. The psalmist prays that the king would be an extension of God’s righteousness and justice.  He therefore prays in verse 2 that those who are afflicted will receive justice, because God protects the downtrodden. He prays in verse 4 that the king will “defend the afflicted,” “save the children of the needy,” and “crush the oppressor,” just as God does. Justice is not as much about giving people what they deserve, but about protecting the vulnerable, lifting up the weak, and frustrating the plans of those who oppress the poor. Justice is about leveling the playing field so that all people can live well and enjoy God’s creation.

Righteousness, then, also has a different meaning. The poor and vulnerable are not saved by God because they are righteous. They haven’t necessarily been good, even though their oppressors have been evil. Rather, God demonstrates his righteousness, his goodness, his loving kindness, by being faithful to his people. He judges his people in righteousness by exerting his justice and saving them from oppression. Righteousness is about doing what is right, but it is not just following the letter of the law, rather it is about being true to a relationship. God is righteous by being true to his people. His people are righteous by being true to God and to God’s people. For us to be righteous means living into the biblical story which is the story of God’s relationship with his people. Particular laws may guide us, but the point is that we, and particularly the King, treat others with compassion, kindness, justice, mercy, and love. To be righteous is to treat others as those who are loved by God for God’s righteousness comes to expression through his love for his people.

So the psalmist prays that the king be endowed with the righteousness and justice of God because he knows that this will result in the flourishing of the land, the second theme. The psalmist, you see, has been meditating on God the Creator. He has been thinking of how God created the world so that all life – human, animal, and vegetable – could flourish. God’s reign over the creation, his just and righteous reign, aims to enable life and life in abundance. Remember the creation story in which God blesses not only humans, but the animals that they might multiply and fill the earth. The psalmist therefore prays that as God endows the King with justice and righteousness, God’s reign would be extended through the King, and Israel and even the land would exhibit the blessings of God. “May the mountains bring prosperity to the people, the hills the fruit of righteousness” (3).

In the second section, verses 8 -14, the psalmist weaves the first theme, the just reign of the King, with the third theme, that the king would rule over the nations. The psalmist envisions a day when the kings of the world, “from the River Euphrates to the ends of the earth” would come and bow down before the king of Israel. The psalmist has been meditating on the vocation of Israel. God called Abraham to be the father of God’s people and he blessed him so that through Israel all the nations of the world would be blessed. God is a just and righteous God who loves his people Israel because he intends to do for all the nations what he has done for Israel.

In verse 12 the psalmist answers the question why the kings should come to bow before the king of Israel: “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help.” The psalmist envisions the nations coming to pay homage to the King of Israel because the King of Israel is an embodiment and thus and extension of God’s justice and righteousness. In other words the blessing of God’s justice and righteousness will come to the nations through the reign of the King of Israel.

This then lead to the obvious conclusion in the third section, verse 15-17 in which the psalmist weaves together the second and third themes: As the nations live under the reign of the king they, and thus the whole earth, will be blessed with flourishing. In verse 18 he prays: “May grain abound throughout the land; on the tops of the hills may it sway.” With the result in verse 17: “Then all nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed.”

So what does this all teach us about prayer? Psalm 72 demonstrates that the petitions of the psalmist grow out of his reflection and meditation on the nature of God and of God’s purposes. When you pray, therefore, don’t begin with petitions. Begin by taking time to reflect on God. Read a passage of scripture and ponder it. What does it reveal about God? Praise God for who he is revealed to be in the passage, and then shape your petitions accordingly.

The collect is a form of liturgical prayer that can help us in this. My prayers of invocation are usually collects taken from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. A collect begins by naming some aspect of God’s nature and/or some gracious act of God. This morning I prayed: “Eternal God, by a star you led magi to the worship of your Son.” This invites reflection on who God is and what his purposes are which then leads to a fitting petition: “Guide the nations of the earth by your light.”  The petition then flows into the hoped for result: “That the whole world may see your glory.” The prayer then ends with a doxology, a word of praise: “Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.” The form then is: Praise of God’s nature and works, petition, hoped for result, and praise of God.

After reflecting on Psalm 72, let us pray:

Almighty God, who rules the earth with justice and righteousness,

turn the hearts of the rulers of the nations to the one true King, Jesus,

that his justice and righteousness may be extended to the poor,

that the land may overflow with grain and the deserts may blossom,

and that all the peoples of the nations may know the blessings of your hand.

“Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel,

who alone does marvelous deeds.

Praise be to his glorious name forever;

may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen” (Psalm 72:18-19)

 

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December 24, 2018 Pondering Treasures: A Christmas Eve Message
(Luke 2:19) There is no audio for this sermon.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Mary has been through quite a lot. She has been visited by an angel and told that she would become pregnant even before her marriage to Joseph. Her fear of what to tell Joseph dissipated as she listened to his story about the angel that he dreamt of. The marvels continued with her visit to Elizabeth - pregnant, can you believe it, at her age? Zechariah’s months of silent brooding. The long trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem only to find the one place left to stay was with the animals. And there, next to the sheep, goats and a cow, she gave birth.

She and Joseph marveled together over what to call him. Gabriel had told Mary that her child would inherit the throne of David, that he would be King and that his kingdom would never end. What a task to name a king! Of course they would obey the angel who visited Joseph and name the baby Jesus, “God saves,” for the angel said that he will save his people from their sins.

And now a bunch of shepherds are crowding into the small room, all wanting a look at this newborn child. They are speaking in awed voices of angels and singing and the good news that this child will be the Savior and Messiah of God’s people. All of Joseph’s family are now gathering round wanting to hear the shepherds’ tale for what seems like the 10th time. And all who hear it are amazed. “But Mary treasures up all these things and ponders them in her heart.”

We have been examining the spiritual discipline of waiting during this season of Advent. Simone Weil once said ““Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” But who likes to wait?  Waiting, probably, has as much appeal in our culture as does another key to Christian spiritual growth – silence. We get nervous when things go silent. We get irritated when we have to wait. Perhaps we fear them both because we fear what we might begin to think about if we are left alone in silence with our thoughts. Perhaps we will have to actually reflect on who we are, the things we have done, the things we have said, the things we haven’t said or done.

As we wait, one of the ways we go in our thoughts is towards the past. We start to dig up past regrets, angers, hurts, and pains. Perhaps Mary is tempted to think of all the people who have been gossiping about her in Nazareth. We begin to chew on what others have done to us. We begin to play that game of “I should have … I could have … I would have.” We can allow our thoughts to swirl around in an unforgiving past.

Another way to go in our thoughts is to the future. “What is going to happen now?” Mary might have thought. This baby is going to become king. How will that happen? And who will that upset? She herself knows the significance of what the angel told her, that God was raising up the lowly in bringing down the proud rulers from their thrones. She is no fool. She knows that the proud and mighty do not fall without a fight. Of course her fears will soon be confirmed when she and Joseph take Jesus to be circumcised a week later. An old man in the temple will take the baby and say to Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel … And a sword will pierce your soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). Following our thoughts into the future can lead us into the dark alleyways of “How?” “When?” and “What if…?”

So as we wait, we can wrestle with our pasts or we can fret about the future, or we can follow Mary’s lead. There is a third way to go. We can treasure things up and ponder them in our hearts. We can recall with wonder how God has worked in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We can remind ourselves of all the promises God has made and rest in the future God is creating. This evening let us listen to the story of the gospel and treasure up all the things that Mary does. Let us ponder them in our hearts during the times of silence for it is in this treasuring up, in this pondering that God begins to work in our hearts. It is in silence and contemplation as we wait for God that God uses this time as a fallow time, a time when not much happens on the surface, but things begin to change beneath the soil of our daily lives. Through silence and contemplation, treasuring and pondering, let us allow God to work in the depths of our hearts, preparing them to receive our King.

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December 23, 2018 All Ye Faithful
(Luke 1:39-45) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When I was young, about your age, my brother and I used to celebrate our birthdays together. Dan is two years older than me, but his birthday is just a week after mine. Now I liked a lot of things about celebrating my birthday. My mom always made chocolate cake with chocolate mint frosting. My parents would buy us a present or two, and for dinner Mom would make our favorite meal. But what really made our birthday celebrations a celebration was that we celebrated together. Dan and I would invite our best friends, Tom and Phil, who were also brothers, to join us. So Dan and I would celebrate our birthdays with our parents and our two friends and each other. That’s what made our birthday celebrations so special.

Tomorrow night and then all day on Tuesday we are going to celebrate a special birthday. We are going to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. I bet you will get to open presents and you will have a special meal. Maybe someone in your house has made special cookies or sweets. But I think the best part about celebrating Christmas is that we do it together, with friends, and with family. On Christmas Eve we will gather together as a church for a special worship service. We will listen to the story of Jesus’ birth and we will sing some of our favorite Christmas carols. Celebrating Christmas together sure makes it special, but what makes Christmas truly special is what we are celebrating. At Christmas we celebrate that God came to be together with us for in Jesus God was born as a little baby boy. And that is something special. That is something to celebrate.
[End children’s sermon]
* * * * * * * * * *

This morning I would like to tell you about a certain club. This club is in one sense very inclusive and in another sense very exclusive. It is inclusive because its members include people from all over the world, from every nation and language and ethnicity. Class is not a barrier to this club. Some of its members are among the wealthiest people in the world and some are among the poorest members in the world. There is an age limit to this club, but even that is somewhat variable. There are no entry fees or applications to fill out. There are no qualifications that need to be met such as education, or work experience, or technical knowledge, or skills. It is a very inclusive club. But on the other hand this club is very exclusive. About half of the population is automatically excluded from membership and no law could ever change that.

The club I am speaking of is that of women who have had or are about to have a baby. The experience of being pregnant and giving birth binds women together in ways that no other experience does. Get a bunch of women together and if one of them is pregnant, the conversation will often turn to their shared experience – the inexperienced seeking comfort, wisdom and just plain solidarity with those who have gone before her. Various stories of easy and difficult pregnancies will be followed by assurances that not everyone’s pregnancy is the same. Advice will be passed on about dealing with morning sickness, an aching back, and what baby paraphernalia you need and what you can do without. I can never be a member of this club, obviously, but I hear tell that pregnancy and giving birth is a wonderful, terrifying, joyous, depressing, awesome, soul changing, beautiful, incredibly painful experience. I can only imagine what it must be like. I can’t imagine, however, how difficult it would be to go through it alone. The club is as natural as birth itself. Women form this club because they need the community as they await the birth of their child.

After the angel Gabriel delivers his astonishing message to Mary, she gathers up her stuff and heads off to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Gabriel had said that even Elizabeth, old, barren and childless Elizabeth, would have a child. When Mary arrives, Elizabeth greets her saying, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” How does Elizabeth know! Mary must be thinking, followed by, “Am I already pregnant?”

On one level Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is one of the most ordinary gatherings. Mary, a young, pregnant, or about to be pregnant woman seeks out the companionship of an older woman and relative whom she can trust.  For her part, Mary provides companionship to an elderly woman who must have many fears of her own. On one level this visit is as ordinary as what women have been doing since the beginning – seeking each other’s support as they wait for the birth of their child.

On another level, both women know that neither their pregnancies nor their children are in any sense of the world ordinary. Their communion is also not just the ordinary communion of two pregnant women. It is the communion of two servants of God with their God. Luke writes, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). Henri Nouwen sees in this visit of Mary with Elizabeth a model of Christian community. He writes, “The visit of Elizabeth and Mary is one of the Bible’s most beautiful expressions of what it means to form community, to be together, gathered around a promise, affirming that something has really happened.”[1] Mary and Elizabeth, like Christians throughout the ages, gather in community around their experience of God being with them.

Women who go through pregnancy need the community of other women. Likewise, Christians who await the coming of our Lord and the birthing of the new age need the community of fellow Christians. We need one another for comfort and courage in this age as we wait for the age to come. We need one another for affirmation that our experience of God has been and is a true experience of God. And we need one another in order to fully celebrate what God is doing and what God has promised to do. If, as Simon Weil contends, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life,” then true Christian spirituality is a waiting done in community.

Both Mary and Elizabeth are in precarious situations. Elizabeth is well past the normal age of bearing children. Roxann and I were somewhat worried when Roxann became pregnant with Elise at age 32. Well, maybe not worried, but we thought if we wanted a second child, the sooner the better. Luke doesn’t tell us how old Elizabeth is, but she is probably well beyond 32. Luke says she is in her old age and that everyone assumed she was barren. Her husband, Zechariah, must also be elderly as he has a high rank in the priesthood. Roxann and I had the benefit of the newly acquired health insurance we received from Hessel Park Church and all the advantages of modern medicine. Elizabeth, on the other hand, had to rely on the wisdom, experience, and skill of the local midwife – which was likely very sufficient in normal circumstances. Still, while Elizabeth had never had a child before, you can be sure she knew her pregnancy was risky to say the least.

And Mary? She too is in a precarious position. Luke doesn’t give a detailed timeline, but Mary arrives in Elizabeth’s 6th month and leaves after 3 months, probably after John is born. The next story is the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. The reader is left to assume that it is during Mary’s visit to Elizabeth that Mary becomes pregnant. She has secluded herself with her elderly cousin. A respectable woman. The wife of a priest no less. She knows that tongues are going to wag if what Gabriel has told her comes to pass. Who is going to believe her?  It looks to me that Mary comes not only to be with Elizabeth during her pregnancy, but to hide out in a safe and secure place. Mary and Elizabeth find protection, encouragement and comfort in their communion.

We also need one another for comfort and encouragement. Mary may wonder who is going to believe her. I am reminded almost daily by some of my agnostic friends on Facebook, by television shows and news articles that my belief in God, that our belief in God, is incomprehensible to many people. They think we live in a fantasy world in which we have made up a god in order to please ourselves. And if we are consistent in our beliefs with the biblical witness, we will find ourselves in contention with the surrounding culture in many ways. Mary reminds us this morning that the gospel includes God bringing down the proud and rich and mighty, and raising up the poor and the hungry. The gospel challenges the consumerism, the individualism, the nationalism, and the materialism, so rampant in our culture. The gospel is at odds with the pursuit of what our culture calls success. We need the community of the church in order to encourage each other to remain faithful, to resist the temptation to live just like everyone else. We need one another for comfort and encouragement.

One of the main ways we provide comfort and encouragement to one another is to affirm each other’s experience of God. Luke tells us, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby inside her leaped in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit.” She calls Mary and her baby blessed and says that Mary’s baby is her Lord. She thus confirms everything the angel Gabriel has said to Mary. Mary didn’t just imagine the angel. She is not delusional. She was visited by a messenger from God. Likewise, Mary’s visit affirms Zechariah’s story. Elizabeth’s baby is not only extraordinary because she has become pregnant at such an old age, he is the child of prophecy and a child born to be a prophet. Mary’s visit and her story of Gabriel confirm it. As Mary and Elizabeth share their experiences of God, they confirm each other’s experiences. God is truly working in and through them.

We also need one another to share and confirm our experience of God. Have you ever been particularly moved in a worship service in which you felt what you believed was the presence of the Holy Spirit? I have and if you have I will confirm that you have experienced the presence of God. Have you ever been overcome by a feeling of warmth and love as you have prayed and so felt assured that this was in fact God’s love that was embracing you? I know many people who have had that experience and they will tell you that you have experienced God’s loving presence. Have you ever felt prompted to do or say something to someone, a feeling which you suspect came from God? Was it for you to do something kind, or generous, or loving? Was it in line with the biblical witness of who God is? Then it may have just been God prompting you to do or say something.

As Christians we need each other to affirm each other’s experience of God. As Christians we do believe that God is present with us, that Christ dwells in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. God does make his presence palpable at times. If there is a God, it is not unreasonable to believe that he makes himself known and felt to people. But we also must provide a check on such experiences. God wouldn’t prompt us to do something that contracted his love and compassion and mercy. We must always test the spirits to see that our experience conforms to the experience of other Christians and to the teaching of the scriptures. In so doing we affirm one another that our faith in God is not mere fantasy. Our faith conforms to experience, to scripture and even to reason. Our faith in God and our experience of God is thus confirmed in and through the community of God’s people. God is indeed with us and he is working through us.

We are called to wait together for the coming of God’s Kingdom and Jesus’ second advent. We wait not alone but together so that we may comfort and encourage one another, so that we can affirm our faith and our experiences of God with us, and finally so that we can truly celebrate what God has done and what he promises to do. When Mary arrives to visit Elizabeth, Elizabeth responds with joy and celebration, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Mary responds in kind, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

One can be happy, joyful, content, and filled with good cheer, but it is a bit difficult to celebrate alone. It can be done, but when people celebrate together, joy and happiness are not just added together, they are multiplied. Mary’s song praising God for lifting up the humble and bringing down the proud not only increased Elizabeth’s joy and celebration,  it has echoed through the hearts and souls of Christians for two thousand years. You can hum a song to yourself. You can sing along to your Christmas playlist, but here you can sing in harmony with your brothers and sisters in Christ. And if you are not the best singer, if you can’t carry a tune, then the congregation will carry you and lift up your praises with you. Here we gather around a common story. Here we are reminded of the gracious acts that God has done and we are told of what is yet to come. Here we come to celebrate together. O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem! Come, and behold Him, born the King of angels! O come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord!



[1] Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting: Being Alert to God’s Presence in Our Lives,” in The Weavings Reader: Living with God in the World (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1993), 69.

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December 16, 2018 Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room
(Luke 3:2-18) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Have you ever noticed what your parents do before they have guests coming over? What do they do to get ready? If they are having people over for dinner, they make the food, of course. Maybe they make coffee or tea, or have things ready to make coffee or tea. They pick up all the clutter in the kitchen and in the family room. Maybe they quickly dust some of the furniture and vacuum the floors. When we have guests over we want our house to look nice and we want to offer them something to eat or drink, so we have to get ready for them to come.

Last week we talked about how we call the four weeks before Christmas the season of Advent because Advent means “coming. We are waiting to celebrate when Jesus came to us the first time as a baby. We are also waiting for Jesus to come again and make all things new and good. Advent is a time of waiting, but it is also a time of preparing. We are getting ready for Jesus to come. We do all kinds of things to get ready to celebrate Christmas, right? We put up decorations. We have special church services. We make Christmas cookies. We buy presents. But what can we do to get ready for Jesus to come back again?

Before Jesus came the first time, John told people to help those who had less than them. He told others not to steal from people, and others to be honest. So we can do is what Jesus told us: love others as we love ourselves. We can treat other people as we would like to be treated. But John also told the people that Jesus would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. And since Jesus has already come that means that he has given us the Holy Spirit. So that means that in one way we are waiting for Jesus to return, but in another way Jesus is already here in our hearts though the Holy Spirit. So perhaps the best way to get ready for Jesus to come is to spend time with Jesus in worship, in reading the Bible, and in prayer because he is already here.
[End of children’s sermon]
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“Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?” In the second or sometimes third week of Advent, the common lectionary seems to interrupt our calm and tranquil and warm and fuzzy Advent season with John the Baptist. We have already started getting into the Christmas spirit. We had our Lessons and Carols service last week. We have all put up our Christmas trees at home and made Christmas cookies. We have been listening to our favorite Christmas playlist on Spotify or iTunes.

We are already celebrating the good news that Jesus was born to a virgin in Bethlehem, but then John the Baptism comes up in the lectionary readings to serve us some bad news and to make us a little uncomfortable. On Jordan’s bank the Baptist cries, “The ax is already at the root of the trees and every tree that does not produce fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” He urges us to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” He not only announces that the Lord is nigh, but he warns us, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. 

During this season of Advent, John the Baptist seems to be the bad news that we are told before the good news of Jesus. But Luke sums up John’s ministry in this way: “And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.”  Luke therefore starts this scene about John the Baptist with a quote from Isaiah. “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” John’s message is likened to the good news proclaimed in Isaiah 40 to the exiles in Babylon. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

The good news of Isaiah and the good news of John is that our exile is over, are sins are forgiven. For Israel this meant that that God was coming to bring them their salvation. He was going to bring them home from Babylon and bring them back to Jerusalem. What then does John’s good news mean for his audience? What then does John’s good news mean for us today? If we pull back from this scene and look at the surrounding context, we can get a better view of how Luke defines the good news that John is preaching, and we can also review some of the themes we have been looking at these past few weeks.

One of the most notable things about Luke is how he sets his gospel, his story of the good news of Jesus, squarely in the context of worldly politics. He sets the stage in 1:5 saying, “In the time of King Herod.” He sets the stage for Jesus’ birth saying, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree …” After 30 years have passed, give or take a few, he sets the stage again for John the Baptist in 3:1: “In the thirteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar …” The good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of David, that is, the King of the Jews, is set over against Caesar, the Emperor of Rome, and over against Herod, the puppet king of Judah. In the words of Zechariah, the good news is that God is coming “to rescue us from our enemies.”  In the words of Mary, “He has helped his servant Israel remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants” (1:54-55). And in the words of Simeon the good news is that in Jesus God’s salvation has come not only to his people, but as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”

The good news in Luke is thus the same good news as in Mark which we read about the other week – the Kingdom of God is coming, God’s reign has come near. This is what the people of Israel were waiting for. In Jesus the Kingdom of God broke through and began to take root.  We are waiting for the fullness of God’s kingdom to come. We are waiting for the reality of God which exists beyond us, behind us, above us, and ahead of us to overwhelm and remake this world, joining earth to heaven once again.

We have seen that one of our main tasks in this in between time, in this time in which the Kingdom has been planted, in which the Kingdom breaks in to this world now and again, one of our main tasks is simply to wait in expectant hope. In doing so we become witnesses of the reign of Christ. Like Zechariah and Mary and Simeon and the shepherds on Christmas morning, we point people to the Kingdom through our trust in the God who is and who was and who is to come. So John’s preaching, the good news John proclaims, invites us to sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King!”

That is the first invitation we receive from John’s preaching: Hear the good news, God’s Kingdom is coming. The second invitation we hear from John’s preaching is the invitation to repent. “All right,” you say, “So we got the good news first, and now we get the bad news. Now we must look at ourselves and fess up to what horrible and sinful people we are. Now we must root out all our selfishness and our greed and our lust.” Well, maybe that is so. Is your life filled with selfishness and greed and lust? Maybe that is where John’s call to repentance must lead you, but is that what John actually says here? The crowds around him ask, “What should we do?” John says, “share with those in need.” To the tax collectors he says, “don’t cheat people,” and to the soldiers he say, “Don’t extort people or accuse them falsely.”

John’s baptism is a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. The good news is that our sins are already forgiven. To repent is to turn from our sin and to turn toward God. It means to turn from living in the kingdoms of this world and to begin living in the Kingdom of God. To repent is to live into the new reality of that Jesus is Lord and not Caesar. It is to be ruled by love and righteousness rather than by the Dow Jones Industrial average. Notice that the sins John focuses on are social sins. To live in the Kingdom of God is, as the prophet Micah puts it, To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:5). To repent is to live under the reign of Christ whose kingdom is not of this world. His kingdom is an “otherworldly” kingdom, but it is a kingdom that is meant for this world. It is a kingdom that is coming.

And so John taps in to another theme in the Gospel of Luke. John calls those with power – the tax collectors and soldiers, not to take advantage of the weak, and he calls each of us to be generous to the poor. This echoes Mary’s song in which she sings that God “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but he has sent the rich away empty” (1:52-53). It echoes Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth when he reads from the book of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” He then says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus himself characterizes his ministry as a ministry of social justice. Moreover Jesus goes on to say that just as in Elijah and Elisha’s time, God’s mercy is particularly shown not to the Israelites, but to a pagan widow in Zarephath and even to Israel’s arch enemy, a leprous Syrian General named Naaman. God in Jesus is particularly merciful to pagans, aliens, foreigners, widows and the unclean.

The good news that the Kingdom is coming thus calls us and frees us from living under the unjust structures of this world. To repent is to live under the just and righteous and merciful reign of Christ. It is to sing “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love.” The good news is that under the reign of Christ we are freed to love our neighbors as ourselves, to live for the common good, and to contribute to the flourishing of all. Is it not good news to be freed from our own selfishness? Is it not good news to be freed from our pride and greed so that we can live in justice and in peaceful harmony with others?  Is John’s call to repent really such bad news?

Well, I don’t know if I would call it bad news, but it is tough news. It isn’t easy personally. It isn’t easy to give up our pride and greed and selfishness. It is also tough news because those in power don’t like the news that Jesus is the true king. The tough news is that the rich don’t like being sent away empty and seeing their wealth being given to the poor. The proud don’t like being taken down from their lofty seats or the humble being lifted up. Luke concludes this scene about John in verse 19, “But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.” And after Jesus preached his first sermon in his home town of Nazareth, the people took him to the brink of a cliff in order to cast him down. People don’t like being told that God is particularly merciful not to them but to the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants and refugees. People don’t like hearing that Jesus came not for the righteous but for sinners. To repent and live into the reign of Christ means taking up a cross like Jesus and following him.

But John is not finished yet. He extends a third invitation. In verse 16 he says, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” In Jesus we are invited to a life in which we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. A life in which the Holy Spirit of God lives in us. We are invited to an intimate communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

John thus taps into a third theme in the Gospel of Luke and Luke’s companion gospel, the book of Acts. God’s people in Luke and Acts are those who are indwelt and led by the Holy Spirit. In Luke, Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, and Simeon are all filled with the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts individuals like Peter, Phillip, Paul and Barnabas are led by the Holy Spirit. But the church as a whole is empowered at Pentecost and several other times by outbreaks of the Holy Spirit all so that its witness bears fruit and it grows from a handful of scared disciples in Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria, and then all the way to Rome and throughout the Roman Empire.

Perhaps most importantly, throughout Luke it is clear that Jesus himself is enabled to carry out his ministry and to endure the passion of the cross by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is anointed with the Sprit at his baptism and he confirms this through the words of Isaiah in his sermon in Nazareth. It is therefore the Spirit through whom Jesus maintains his intimate relationship with God the Father. It is the Spirit that leads and guides Jesus in obedience and in faith so that he can pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will, but yours be done” (22:42). It is the Spirit that enables Jesus to say on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34).

And so it is also with the Apostle Paul. From prison in Rome, after a life of dedicated service to the gospel in which he has been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and imprisoned multiple times, he writes to his beloved church in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:4-7). He can say all of this because he knows that it is Christ who is in him through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Paul can thus say a few verses later, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (12-13).

Friends in Christ, John invites us to believe with joy the good news that God’s kingdom is coming. He invites us to repent and to begin living into the reign of Christ. And he invites us to live out of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He invites us to have our lives led and guided by the Spirit, and to have our souls indwelt by the Spirit. He invites us to live in an ever more intimate relationship with God through whom we will receive a peace that transcends all understanding and lead to a life in which we can be content and faithful in every situation. And so this baptism is also a baptism of fire, for as you grow more intimate with God, Christ will burn up all the chaff in your life. He will burn up your pride. He will burn up your selfish desires. He will burn up your greed, your jealousies, your angers, your old hurts and resentments. But you will come to warm yourself around this fire for you will recognize that all this chaff in your life has been the chains that have oppressed your soul and kept you from being who you are truly meant to be. Friends, let us receives John’s invitations and sing the words of Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.” The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you. Amen.

(Silent prayer)

 

Almighty God, you send your Son into a world

            where the wheat must be winnowed from chaff

            and wickedness clings even to what is good.

Let the fire of your Spirit purge us of greed and deceit,

            so that, purified, we may find our peace in you

            and you may delight in us.

We ask this through him whose coming is certain,

            whose day draws near,

            your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

            one God, forever and ever. Amen.

 

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December 9, 2018 A Season of Waiting
(A Service of Lessons and Carols) There is no audio for this sermon.

When I was young the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas were weeks of waiting. Our family would haul out the Christmas decorations. We would put up our Christmas tree and hang all the ornaments on it. My mom would spread a bright red tablecloth over the dining room table and put a center piece on it with evergreen branches and pine cones and candles. We hung a wreath on the front door and then my mom might make some Christmas cookies.

When all the decorating was done, I thought there was still something missing. What do you think that might be? ... The Christmas tree was full of lights and ornaments, but I still thought it looked kind of empty. There were no presents under the tree. And so I would wait. And my brothers would wait. We would check every morning to see if there were any presents under the tree, but day after day we just had to wait. And we waited and waited, and then one day, maybe a week or so before Christmas, all of a sudden there would be presents under the tree.

Now during that time of waiting, it seemed like nothing was happening. Nothing changed. The tree looked the same every morning. There was a huge empty space underneath the tree every day. It didn’t seem like anything was happening. But as I got older, I realized that something was happening. I realized that on some nights my parents would go out to the stores. On the weekends they might make a trip to the mall. I realized that while I was waiting. My parents were planning. They were figuring out what to get each of us. They were shopping for our presents. After they bought them they would hide our presents so we couldn’t find them. One night after we went to bed, when they had bought all our presents, they would wrap them all up in bright wrapping paper and put them under the tree. So while my brothers and I waited and waited and it seemed like nothing was happening, my parents were very busy getting ready for our Christmas celebration.

This season before Christmas is called Advent. Do you know what Advent means? It means “coming.” It is the season in which we wait for the coming of Jesus. We wait to celebrate his first coming when he was born in Bethlehem. And we wait for the day when he will come again and make all things new and good. This morning we are celebrating Advent and Christmas with our special Lessons and Carols service. So we sing Christmas Carols, but we also read “Lessons.” The Lessons are bible stories that have to do with the birth of Jesus. Actually many of them tell of how God’s people waited and waited for the birth of Jesus. We will read of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, and also of John the Baptist. We will read of how God promised that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem and that he would bring peace to God’s people. We will read of Mary and Joseph, of the shepherds, the angels, and the wise men from the east.

All of these people were waiting in one way or another for Jesus. And sometimes they waited for years and years. The people of Israel waited hundreds and hundreds of years for God to send a savior. We will read of an old man named Simeon who waited for years and years in the temple for God to send Israel a savior. So sometimes during all this waiting, it seemed like not much was happening. God’s people probably wondered if God would ever do anything to save them. But they kept on waiting.

But even when we don’t see anything happening, God is often working quietly and slowly. During all these years that Israel waited, God’s people collected all the writings of the prophets and all the books about Abraham and Moses and the children of Israel, and they collected all Psalms that were written by David and others, and they put them all into one book which we call the Bible. At that time it was just what we call the Old Testament. During those years God was working in his people because as they worshipped him and as they read the stories of the Bible, they learned to put their hope in him. You see, as God’s people waited, God was working. He was preparing them for the coming of Jesus.

What is more, God was preparing the world for the coming of Jesus. During all those years and years the people of God waited, many of them moved out of Jerusalem to a number of cities throughout the Roman Empire. Some of them moved to Rome, in what is now Italy, some to Athens in Greece, and some to Ephesus, which is now in Turkey. And in those cities the Jewish people told other people about God and about the Bible and they taught them how to worship God. Those are the cities that years later the Apostle Paul traveled to. Now when Paul visited each of these cities, the first thing he would do would be to visit the local synagogue where the Jewish people worshipped God. He would talk with the Jewish people who were there, and he would talk to the people the Jews told about God, and he would tell them all about Jesus. And some of them came to believe in Jesus and that is how the church started to grow and grow. That is how new churches were started in cities all over the Roman Empire. So you see, while it didn’t look like anything was happening, while the people waited for God to save them, God was working, getting his people and the world ready to hear about Jesus.

So as we listen to the stories of God’s people and how they waited for God to send a savior, how they waited for Jesus, maybe you can think about how we are waiting for Jesus to come back. Sometimes we look around the world and it doesn’t look like much is happening. We might wonder where God is and what he is doing. But because we know that God was working back then even when people didn’t notice it, we can trust that God is working now. We can trust that God is working so more and more people now about Jesus. He is preparing the world for Jesus’ return.

And when we have to wait in our own lives, as we wait for Jesus to come back, we can wait with patience. Sometimes we might pray to God and sometimes it seems like God doesn’t answer right away. We have to wait and wait for God’s response. This season of Advent teaches us that as we wait, we can trust that God is working. And so we can wait with patience, with faith, and with hope.

Dear Lord Jesus, we thank you that you left your heavenly throne to be born as a baby in Bethlehem, to bring your salvation to us and to the world. Give us faith that you are always working in this world so we may wait for your return with patience and hope. Amen.

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December 2, 2018 Keeping Watch
(Luke 21:25-36) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] The other morning I woke up and there was some snow on the ground. What does it tell you when you see snow on the ground for the first time of the year? It tells you that winter is coming, doesn’t it? And when you see the leaves on the trees begin to change colors, what does that tell you? It tells you that fall is coming.  So there are signs that we can see that fall and winter are coming. Is there a sign that spring is coming?  When you see the trees beginning to bud, or maybe daffodils poking up out of the ground, then you know that spring is almost here.

Jesus lived in the land of Israel and they only have two seasons in Israel, summer and winter. And so Jesus once said, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

Jesus said that there are signs that we can see that tell us that his Kingdom is near. What signs do you think that might be? Maybe when we see people treating each other with kindness; that might be a sing of God’s kingdom. Maybe when we see people helping those who are sick, just like Jesus healed the sick; that might be a sign of the kingdom. Maybe when see people helping those who are poor; that might be a sing of the kingdom. Jesus says that one of the signs of the kingdom is that people will look to him. So when we see people looking to Jesus and putting their faith in him, that is a sign that Jesus’ kingdom is near. And when people put their faith in Jesus, you now what they do? The treat others with kindness. They take care of people who are sick. They help people who are poor. So when you see those things, you know that Jesus’ Kingdom is near.
[End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

When people speak of the end times, they often bring up this passage and the images from this passage. Therefore we think the end times will be a time of chaos upon the earth. A time of wars and rumors of war. A time of great distress. A time of famines and earthquakes and pestilence. A time something like now. But, as I have noted before, Jesus says at the beginning of this sermon, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

As we heard a couple of weeks ago, Jesus has just thrown the disciples for a loop. They made some comments about the temple and Jesus tells them that the temple will be destroyed. In their world that means the end of their world. Jesus goes on to predict that not just the Temple but all Jerusalem with it will be destroyed. The main topic of this passage is therefore not the end times, but the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. In this passage Jesus instructs his followers how they should conduct themselves when their world seems to be falling apart.

Rather than instructing his disciples to look forward in time to the end times, Jesus actually brings up images that will encourage the disciples to look back in time. In verse 27 he says, “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” This is a reference to Daniel 7, which we read two weeks ago. Daniel sees “one like a son of man” arriving with the clouds, but not to earth, but to the throne of God. In the vision God seats the Son of Man on his throne and grants him dominion over “all peoples, nations and men of every language.” The image is not of Jesus’ return to earth, but of his ascension to heaven which took place in AD 33. So Jesus is saying when the Romans destroy Jerusalem in AD 70, many will look up and see Jesus ascending to his throne in AD 33. How can that be?

Last week we saw how God is he who is and who was and who is to come. God exists outside of time. And so when Jesus ascends to the heavenly realms, he too enters that eternal space. His ascension happens outside of our time and can therefor break in to this time at any time. Or rather, the veil between heaven and earth can be pulled back at any time and we here on earth can see this heavenly event that happens outside of time.

In a similar way, then, this passage is about the end times. While the main drama Jesus talks about is the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, he alludes in several places to the end. He speaks of “that day,” which hints at “the Day of the Lord.” And there are times when the action seems to not just be in Jerusalem, but worldwide, and even cosmic. Jesus thus brings in images of the “end times.” He can do this because the Day of the Lord is also an event that is outside of our time and breaks into our time on occasion. It is analogous to God’s eternity who is and who was and who is to come. The Ascension and the Day of the Lord can be now, in the past, and in days to come.

So here is the scene. Jesus’ disciples are distraught at the thought of the destruction of the Temple. Jesus therefore tells them that there are going to be times ahead when the world will seem to be coming to an end. There will be chaos throughout the world and they, as his disciples, can’t expect to be exempt from the chaos. In fact, there will be times when Jesus’ followers will be persecuted. They will be arrested and hauled before governors and kings.

What then are Jesus followers to do? “Stand firm,” Jesus tells them. Stand up and lift up your heads.” “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life.” “Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen.” In the midst of wars and rumors of wars, of pestilence and plaques, Jesus tells his disciples that it is their job to watch and pray. Wait, in other words, with attentiveness and hope. Watch for the signs of the Kingdom.

But what are the signs of the Kingdom? Are they not all the terrible things that are going to happen? Are they not the signs in “the sun, moon, and stars?” Are they not that “nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea?” See, the rising sea levels are a sign that the end is near? The forest fires in California, the wars in Yemen and Syria, are not these the signs?

Yes, and no. They are signs, but they are not the main sign. In verse 27 Jesus says, “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”  Jesus says “they” will see him being enthroned. “They” not “you.” The main sign of the kingdom is that when people in Jerusalem and then all over the world experience all these calamities, some of them will look and see Jesus. They will see him being given the throne to reign over the whole world. They will see him, that is, as Lord and King. This makes sense because another sign is that during these tumultuous times the disciples are going to be giving testimony about Jesus. The main sign of the coming Kingdom is people on earth claiming Jesus as King. When this happens Jesus’ ascension breaks in to our time. When this happens “the end” and the Kingdom break in to this world.

One of the traps we fall into as modern people is that we have come to accept progressivism as a reality. By progressivism I do not mean left-wing progressive American politics. I mean the modern idea that things in general -the world, politics, society, evolution - progress from lower states to higher states, from worse to better. We assume that the Kingdom of God follows the rules of progressivism and comes bit by bit into this world. But the Kingdom doesn’t come in progressively. Jesus says there are going to be wars and rumors of wars, persecutions and pestilence. Things are not necessarily going to get better. They may get better, but that may only last for a time. They may get worse, but that may only last for a time.

This passage, then, brings us a message of warning, but also a message of hope. First, the message of warning: when we fall into the trap of progressivism we get into all kinds of trouble. When we think the kingdom comes into the world step by step, bit by bit, we start to identify the Kingdom with particular political or social movements. For conservative Christians this meant that the election of Barak Obama was somehow a setback to the Kingdom of God. And many have now identified Trump’s administration with the advance of the Kingdom. As more and more conservative judges are appointed, and as the conservatives won the battle over the Supreme Court, the path of the Kingdom looks really good to them for years to come. For progressive Christians the opposite seems to be true. They decry Trump’s policies on the environment, immigration laws, international policies, well, on just about everything he has done or tried to do as a set back of the Kingdom of God. And they pray to God in despair.

This is a trap because then we start to believe that we as Christians must support this political party, or that social movement. We then start questioning the faith of other Christians who do not support our cause or our candidate. We can also be tempted to overlook the immoral tactics of our political party, or the lies our candidate tells, or the way our cause leads people to ignore other pressing problems in our world. At its worse, we begin to identify a particular nation with the cause of the Kingdom. To equate Trump’s “Make America Great” agenda with the Kingdom of God, for instance, borders on heresy. The Son of Man in Daniel is King over all the nations and he no longer works through any particular nation. Rather, it is the church, the global, international church who is given the mission to bear witness to Christ and his Kingdom.

And that brings us to my second point; this passage gives us direction for how we are to pursue God’s mission as the church. Our role in God’s mission when the world seems to be coming to an end is to wait patiently with expectation. As we said last week, the Kingdom of God is here in some ways but it is not fully here. But that does not mean we are on a progressive course in which we can see the slow but steady advancement of the kingdom. In fact, things may get a lot worse. It may appear at times that the Kingdom is regressing. But Jesus tells us “stand up and lift up your heads.” He encourages us to look to him and his past ascension, and to look to him and his coming Kingdom. He reigns. He is on the throne. Nothing that happens here and now can alter that. He has won the decisive battle over death and sin. Neither the gates of hell nor any political movement nor any terrorist organization will derail or set back or overcome the Kingdom nor will they ever fully overcome this world. God’s Kingdom is coming.

And so even when things appear to be at their worst, even when the world seems to be coming to an end, the Kingdom is not being set back. People can still look to Christ. We can still testify to the lordship of Christ and to his Kingdom. People will then look up and the veil between heaven and earth will be drawn back and they will see Christ on the throne and the Kingdom will break in upon us.

So instead of working frenetically as if God’s Kingdom depended on us, we can live in this world with calm assurance.  We can live with trust and confidence that God’s Kingdom depends on God and not on us. That frees us to continue working for the Kingdom rather than trying to build the Kingdom. We work for the Kingdom by loving our neighbors as ourselves, seeking justice for the oppressed, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger. We work for the Kingdom by testifying that Jesus is Lord and living as if that were so. And when people begin to put their faith in Christ, when people act out of their faith in Christ and love justice and seek mercy, then we will see sprouts of the Kingdom breaking through the soil and buds of the Kingdom popping out of branches. Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be. Amen.

Silence

Almighty God, in this Advent season as we anticipate the coming of your Son, our Lord and King, Jesus, keep our eyes ever upon him, seated on the throne so that we may wait with peace and confidence and joy and faithfulness and so that our very lives may be a budding sign of your coming Kingdom. We pray in the name of Jesus who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.

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November 25, 2018 Waiting for the True Kingdom
(John 18:33-37; Revelation 1:4-8) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do you go to school? I wonder what you like about school. I like a lot of things about going to school. I liked walking into the building which I thought was pretty old. I liked thinking about how for many years other kids just like me had been coming to my school and learning the same things I was learning. I liked seeing all my friends every day. But what I really liked about school was that there was something new every day. There was always something new to learn, some new math problem to solve, some new story to read, or some new person from history to learn about. I guess you could say I liked the past, present and future of school. I liked how old the school was, I liked seeing my friends every day, and I liked how there was something new to learn the next day.

In the book of Revelation God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come.”  Now Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega is the last so it is like saying, “I am the A and the Z.” God is the beginning and the end. All of time is in God - present, past and future, for he is the God is who is, who was, and who is to come. Because God has been in the past, we can trust that he will always be the same. We can always count on him. Because God is in the present, we can know that he is always with us, always watching over us, always carry for us. And because God is he who is to come, we can always look forward to the future. God will always be doing something new. He will always have something new for us to do. God is the A and the Z, the Alpha and the Omega, who is, who was, and who is to come. [End of Children’s Sermon].

* * * * * * * * * *

Evan, Elise and I like to make fun of Roxann once in a while because she always gets her sayings mixed up. Instead of saying, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” Roxann will say “I want my cake and ice cream too.” “Why?” she asks, “would you have a cake and not eat it? It makes no sense. And who has birthday cake without ice cream?”

Now when you see Valencia’s cakes and cupcakes, I think “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” makes perfect sense. She is such an artist that you hate to cut into the cake and destroy her masterpiece. And so the saying rings true: you can’t have the cake, you can’t keep the cake in order to admire it, and eat it as well.

When it comes to this world and the world to come, we Christians are faced with a similar dilemma. We claim to believe in the coming Kingdom of God. We believe that one day all the world will recognize God as the Creator and Christ as King. We believe that one day heaven and earth will be joined together and God will make his dwelling with humanity once again. We believe that one day the dead will be raised and we and the whole world will be changed. We are waiting for the new heavens and the new earth. That is what we are waiting for.

The problem is that we tend to act as though there is a dichotomy between this world and the next. Some Christians place so much emphasis on their hopes in the next world, that they discount this one. What matters is saving souls to get people into the next. We have no hope of fixing this world’s problems, so we shouldn’t be wasting our time worrying about social injustice or climate change. Other Christians, however, seem to be rather embarrassed by the Christian doctrine of the end times. There is too much about these beliefs that is supernatural and fantastic. When Christians speak of resurrection, or heaven, or life everlasting, we sound so naïve. We sound as if we reject science and still live in the 15th century. Better to just focus on protesting the injustice in the world,, changing our criminal justice system, and protecting the environment. Basically many Christians are saying, “You can’t have heaven and earth too.”

Now I know that most of us here will say that we don’t fit into either of those categories. We know that we live in the “already, but not yet” of the Kingdom. We know that Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. He testified to the initial presence of the Kingdom in this world through his preaching and in his ministry of healing. We believe that through his death and resurrection he won the decisive battle over the enemies of the Kingdom, sin and death. We all know that the Kingdom of God is in some sense here and now, for Jesus said to his disciples, “the Kingdom is among you” (Luke 17:21). But we also know that the Kingdom is not fully here. That is all too evident if you simply look around. We know that The Kingdom is here but not yet, and so we hope for the day when Christ returns to bring his Kingdom in its fullness.

But it is one thing to believe this, and another thing to live it out. It is so easy to become “practical atheists.” It is so easy to believe in one thing, to believe in the coming Kingdom of God, but then live our lives as everyone else around us does. There is a built in tension to the Christian life because we must live in this beautiful world that God created and loves, but yet we know how damaged and broken it is. We live in this world but we believe that this world is not the source or grounding for itself. There is something greater than this world, something transcendent, something beyond, Someone who is and who was and who is to come. And so we believe that this world is not ultimate, there is more yet to come. We live in this beautiful world, but we know it is passing away. At the heart of this tension is that it is so easy to point to this world, but difficult to point to that which is beyond and transcendent. We can only believe. We can’t offer proof of the truth we believe in, only testimony.  This tension lies at the heart of our story this morning.

What is truth?” With these words Pilate dismisses Jesus and turns down the path that eventually leads him to having Jesus crucified. The Jewish leaders have accused Jesus of a crime, but Pilate can’t figure out how to find their accusations credible. They have accused him of treason, of claiming to be a king. But Pilate looks at Jesus and asks incredulously, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  What a joke, he must be thinking.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t help to clear things up. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” “You are a king, then!” Pilate replies, but under his breath he mutters, “King of another place!? You can be king of Never-Never land for all I care.” Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” It is a rather pertinent question for today. With both sides of the political spectrum claiming “Fake news!” we may be tempted to throw our hands up in the air like Pilate and ask, “What is truth?” But in the absence of an answer, when we can’t determine what is “truth,” when “truth” seems relative or debatable, then we tend toward violence. “I find no basis for a charge against him,” Pilate tells the religious leaders, but at their insistence he releases a true revolutionary named Barabbas and has Jesus beaten and crucified.

The rub of it all for us is that the truth to which Jesus has come to testify, just like the kingdom over which he reigns, is not of this world. Jesus comes to bear witness to the fact that this reality, this world in which we live is not the arbiter of Truth. The foundation of what is True, the foundation of what is real, lies outside this world. Jesus’ Kingdom is what is most fundamentally real and true. In our passage from Revelation, God says “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come” (1:8). The basis of reality lies in God who is the beginning and the end, who exists outside of time and so exists outside the reality in which we live.

To say that truth lies outside this world means to recognize that this world is transitory. It is passing away. It is not ultimate. Seeing this we can accept that this world is a fallen world. We therefore don’t have to accept this world on its terms. Jesus said if he was from this world his followers would become an army. Many in this world would have us believe that violence lies at the root of this world, that force is the only way to get things done. But we know that this is a fallen world. Violence and hatred are not inherent to the world; they are intruders. We therefore don’t have to play by the rules of this fallen world. Rather, we believe that God, who is love, created this world and founded it on love and grace. The hope we have for the kingdom is that love and grace will finally overcome violence and hatred, fear and anger. It is this faith that enables Jesus to allow the world to convict him to death through a sham trial, beat him and mock him, and, finally, to nail him to a cross until he dies. He endures the cross because he knows that violence, fear and hatred will not have the last word. He knows that there is a more fundamental grounding of this world that will be fully present in the next. He knows what is most deeply true and so he can die to that which is not True.

Last week I quoted Simone Weil who said, ““Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”[1] The word we normally use to mean “waiting patiently in expectation” is hope. But hope has been stripped of its deep meaning. For most people to hope is simply to wish for something. Once again Henri Nouwen is helpful as he draws a distinction between wishing and true waiting.

Wishing is specific. We wish for certain things. We wish for a new bike for our birthday. We wish for a promotion. Wishing therefore leads to impatience and a demand to control the outcome. When we don’t get what we want we get anxious and annoyed. Wishing is derived out of a sense of lack and is often driven by selfish desire, or fear, or anger. And since it is focused on something specific and a demand for control, it locks us into a certain path which usually leads to violence if our wish is not fulfilled. You can see this in how Pilate traps himself into a course of action by his own wish.

Pilate wishes for a calm and peaceful Passover week. Tensions are high as the Jews celebrate their liberation from Egypt. He has already arrested one rebel named Barabbas and now the Jewish leaders are turning in one of their own and saying he is claiming to be King. The path before Pilate, the path to demonstrate that Rome’s grip over Judah remains strong and firm, yet not unreasonable, demands a delicate balancing act. Through this whole process Pilate has demonstrated his willingness to negotiate, at least a little. He finds his way ahead by acceding to the request of the Jewish leaders, having this Jesus crucified, and releasing Barabbas. He thus shows that he can be merciful, but more importantly, he has gained what he wants.- through this whole process the Jews have conceded Rome’s rightful rule over them. They have admitted that it is his place to condemn someone to death, and, his greatest victory of the day, the Jews are out in the courtyard yelling, “We have no King but Caesar.” The truth of Jesus’ innocence is a small price to pay for all of that.

In contrast to Pilate, Jesus waits. He does not wish for God to send a band of angels to save him. He does not wish for his disciples to raise up an army to storm the palace. He hopes and waits for what is more true than violence. He hopes and waits for resurrection.

In contrast to wishing, which is specific, Nouwen says that true waiting, hope, is open ended. Jesus has faith in the promises of God that he will be raised from the dead and that this act of dying on the cross and rising will bring in a new age. To wait open-endedly, according to Nouwen, is to “[give up] control over our future and [to let] God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to fear.”[2] To wait with open-ended hope, to wait in expectation, is to refuse to demand that our future turn out a certain way, but to trust that our future is in the hands of God. And thus, instead of being locked into a path that leads to anger and violence, our future opens us up to love, gentleness, kindness, and patience.

And that leads us to a second difference between wishing and waiting. Since wishing is specific, it leads to an end. But since waiting and hope are open ended, they lead to ever new beginnings. Jesus trusts in God, the God, according to the book of Revelation, “who is, and who was, and who is to come.” Jesus trusts in the God who is eternal, who has no beginning and so has no end. God’s actions are therefore ever becoming. Charles Matthews, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, argues that “the fundamental ontology [or the fundamental reality] of the world is describable as “being born again” – a form of existence oriented toward ever deeper beginning. We are saved from something, but what we are saved from is fundamentally a bad version of ourselves, our solitude, our isolation. And what we are given is life abundant – life that has properly, at last, begun.”

Friday afternoon I sat on our family room floor with several strands of Christmas lights strewn around me. As my parents looked on I began the tedious job of trying to figure out which bulb in a strand of 400 lights was causing half of them to fail. After several minutes of this my parents and I decided that the problem was not due to any single bulb, but due to a fault in the wires. It would be impossible to find and fix the problem. There was nothing to do but throw them away and buy three new strands of lights to hang on our front porch. But I know that in 3 or 4 years, I am going to be sitting on the family room floor with several stands of lights strewn around me trying to figure out why half of the lights on each strand don’t work.

We idolize newness and novelty in our culture. We love getting new clothes, a new car, a new computer, a new phone. But so much of the new stuff we buy is built to fail. Computers and phones are designed to become obsolete in 4 or 5 years. Companies make it more expensive to repair your dishwasher than to replace the whole thing. Newness is an idol because while we value what is new, we discard all that is old. And the new then quickly becomes old.

The newness we hope for in the Kingdom of God, however, is not such a false newness. It is a newness based on Truth, for what is new, what is becoming does not discard the old. Rather what is new comes out of the old and fulfills the old. The dichotomy be heaven and earth, between this age and the age to come is thereby erased.  What we hope for is resurrection in which our old, dead bodies will be raised to new life. What we hope for, what we wait expectantly for is the new heavens and the new earth that will be made from out of the present heavens and the present earth and will fulfill what this world was and is supposed to become. Let us therefore be on the side of Truth. Let us listen to Jesus. Let us wait in hope-filled, patient expectation for his Kingdom. And in this way let us testify to the Truth. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



[1] Quoted in Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting: Being Alert to God’s Presence in Our Lives,” in The Weavings Reader: Living with God in the World (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1993), 70.

[2] ibid. 68.

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November 18, 2018 What are you waiting for?
(Mark 13:1-11) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] What do you like about the building here at Hessel Park Church? … Is there anything special about Hessel Park Church? Our church is a bit different than other churches. There are no pews. It is all white. We have our potluck lunches right where we worship. I like it when we have our snacks outside after the worship service. There are quite a few special things about Hessel Park Church.

Well I don’t know if you know this, but the temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was one of the most beautiful and amazing buildings in all the world at that time. It was made of all white marble, so it really shone like a light on a hill. King Herod actually made the hill on which the temple was built twice as big by building huge walls of giants stones and then filling it all in.

But you know what was most special about the temple? The temple symbolized that God was present with his people. Inside the temple there was a holy place and in side that was a place called the Holy of Holy’s. And way back when King Solomon built the first temple, God’s glory came down and filled the Holy of Holies.

Now we believe that God is everywhere. But when we come to church we believe that God meets us here. When we worship God, we worship in his presence. That is the most special thing about Hessel Park Church, and about any church. But there is one more thing I think is pretty special about Hessel Park Church, and it is this big, huge window behind you. When God meets us here as we worship, anyone can look in and see us. This window reminds us that when we meet God here, he is not just for us, God is here for everyone in the world. [End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Some friends and I were talking about all the construction happening on campus lately. It seems every time you pass by a place in campus town that you haven’t been to in a while, there is a new high rise of student apartments. One of my friends commented on how disorienting it is just to walk around campus town. Old restaurants and shops are gone. Familiar views have disappeared. You look up from walking and you have to take a minute to recognize where you are. The number and size of the new high rises in Champaign-Urbana over the past 7 years is rather stunning.

The disciples look up at the temple and they are amazed. Many of them are fishermen used to seeing the flat surface of the Sea of Galilee backed by the surrounding hills. Nowhere else have they seen such magnificent architecture. Nowhere else have they beheld such a massive structure.  “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

Of course the awe in the voice of the disciples is not just due to the truly incredible sight of temple. Their awe of the size and magnificence of the temple was matched by their beliefs about the temple. The temple represented God’s presence with his people. But this temple had been built by Herod the Great, and many Jewish people had ambivalent feelings about the priests who ran the temple. While Herod claimed to be a Jew, he was a puppet of the Roman Empire. Most people saw through his false piety and the false piety of his sons who reined in Jesus’ day. Likewise, the people knew that the High Priests were in the pocket of Herod and of Rome. Ironically, the main symbol of Jewish nationalism was also a symbol of Israel's subservience to Rome.

But because the temple represented God’s presence with his people, it also became a symbol of hope. The people longed for a Messiah not only to come and defeat their enemies, the Romans, but also to cleanse and purify the temple. They longed to worship God in freedom once again. The temple would then be not just a symbol of God’s presence, but the assurance of God’s actual presence with them,

Our buildings often embody our hopes as well. So what are you waiting for? The high rise apartments going up on campus embody the hopes of many student to live a life of urban success. Many Americans, and many of us, live in single family homes that are rather large when compared to homes in the rest of the world. We literally build the American dream and then live in it. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 targeted buildings that symbolize what Americans put their trust and hope in – the economy, the government, and the military.

When Jesus responds to the disciples he basically drives a battering ram through their hopes and dreams. “Do you see all these great buildings?” he says in verse 2, “Not one stone here will be left on another, every one will be thrown down.”  “Tell us,” the disciples ask desperately, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled?” At this point the hopeful waiting of the disciples has been turned into a fear of God’s judgment. They recognize a prophetic pronouncement of judgement when they hear it, and the prediction that the temple will be destroyed is definitely a prophetic pronouncement of judgment.

So what are we waiting for? Over the next few weeks through the season of Advent, we are going to be looking at the spirituality of waiting. Simone Weil, a French philosopher and mystic said, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”[1] But what are we waiting for? Many in Jesus’ day put their hopes in a coming judgment of the Romans and of the religious leaders who had been coopted by them. Others went along with the Romans and those same religious leaders. Today we might put our hopes in our political institutions. Despite our dissatisfaction with those in Washington, I think we also put a lot of our hope in politicians as well. Some put their hopes in the economy. Others just hope for a job and career that pays them well enough that they don’t have to worry about politics or the economy. Still others put their hopes in social and grass roots political movements.

Those of us who believe in God are supposed to put our hopes in him, but what does that look like? Are we hoping for God to come and pass judgment on our political and economic systems? On our enemies?  Are we even aware that he may just come and pass judgment on our “temple” on our religious systems: our theological formulations, our lists of do’s and don’ts, and the prejudices they produce? Are we hoping that he will just bless our political or social endeavors as we pray in our prayer of confession? What do we hope for? What are we waiting for?

For us as Christians to “wait patiently in expectation” is not an easy task. After predicting that the temple will be destroyed, Jesus paints a frightful picture. There will be wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes. Although Jesus is speaking specifically about the Roman invasion of Israel when they destroyed the temple in AD 60, I think these words can still speak to us today. The worldwide situation, we might say, may become filled with chaos. Tensions between Iran and the US and China and North and South Korea may grow. There may be fires in California and hurricanes in North Carolina, but Jesus says in verse 7, “the end is still to come.”

The chaos in the world, however, is just the backdrop for an equally frightful yet more intimate picture. Jesus tells the disciples that they will be persecuted by the religious leaders. They will be arrested and put on trial before governors and kings. They may even come to the same fate as he does, and many of them did. While we hope in God, that does not mean that we as Christians are exempt from suffering. Rather, we may suffer even more than others because we follow Jesus.

A few weeks ago we talked about how we live in a culture of fear. Our fears are heightened by mass shootings, contested election results, trade wars and rumors of war. Henri Nouwen once said, “Fearful people have a hard time waiting, because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are. But if we cannot flee, we may fight instead.”[2] He goes on to say how fear and anger are the enemies of true Christian spirituality, which is a spirituality of waiting. But if there are two things that characterize the emotional state of this nation, they are fear and anger. So how do we wait patiently in expectation in the midst of a culture of fear and anger? By flight or fight?

That brings us back to our main question. We can only wait patiently in expectation if we know what we are waiting for. Jesus says that all these fearful things that will take place do not necessarily signal the end, “The end is still to come,” he says. Rather, he says, they signal a new beginning. “These are the beginning of birth pains.”

Jesus has been preaching all through the gospel of Mark the good news of the coming Kingdom of God. We are waiting for the Kingdom. We are waiting for the joining together of heaven and earth. We are waiting for the time when all humanity will recognize God as their creator and Jesus as their King. We are waiting for a time when God will come to dwell once again within the creation. Jesus, the word of God made flesh, Immanuel, God with us, was a foretaste of our hope that God would one day fully and openly dwell with humanity once again as God walked with Adam and Eve. That is what we are waiting for.

But that begs another question, if we are waiting for the Kingdom, how does the Kingdom come? I believe this is one of the most important questions we as Christians need to answer today, because I believe many Christians are answering it in the wrong way. Many Christians like to focus on the truth that Jesus has been victorious. As it says in our reading from Hebrews, he has offered himself as the sacrifice to take away the sins of the world and he has sat down at the right hand of God. Jesus now reigns.

Many Christians, however, assume that since Jesus is on the throne that God has now changed tactics. Now that Jesus is on the throne the kingdom is going to come by Christians exerting their power in the world. Faced now with opposition, faced now with waning influence in a secular world, many Christians believe it is time to fight. They believe that Christians should seek to gain political power. They should seek influence in the media and in the corporate world. They should focus on and try to win the “culture wars.” Many behave as though the coming of the Kingdom is about extending Christian influence in the world and forcing others to conform to Christian ethics and beliefs.

But what does our text say? Our text says that the disciples will not become governors or CEO’s, but that they will be arrested and put on trial before governors and kings. But it says more than that if we look at the context. We have noted over the past weeks how this sermon in chapter 13 follows five stories that center around the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. In Mark chapter 2 there is also a series of five stories in which Jesus gets into arguments with the religious authorities. Mark concludes those stories saying, “Then the Pharisees [that is, some of the religious authorities] began to plot with the Herodians [that is, some Jews who supported the political authorities] how they might kill Jesus.” In our text this second set of conflict stories ends with Jesus telling his disciples that they will be “flogged in the synagogues” and that they will “stand [on trial] before governors and kings.” They, like Jesus, will not assume religious or political power, but they will be persecuted by the religious and political powers.

Jesus brought in the Kingdom by proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom, by welcoming the outcasts and the sinners into his company, and by curing the sick and casting out demons. Ultimately, however, he brought in the kingdom by dying on a cross and rising from the dead. But after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, God’s game plan does not change, only the players. Jesus tells the disciples that they will be persecuted, but the end is not yet because “the gospel must first be preached to all the nations” and that they will stand before governors and king as witnesses. The kingdom comes by the Disciples of Christ, by you and me, following in the actual footsteps of Jesus. Christians are called to influence the world in politics, economics and the social realm. But not by flight or by fight, but by bearing witness.

We hope in the Kingdom and we wait patiently in expectation by taking up our cross and following Jesus. We are able to do this because we are not the only ones waiting. In our epistle reading it says, “But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool” (10:12-13).

It is tempting to take this language as language that validates the Christian pursuit of power over our enemies. Jesus is waiting until his enemies have been made his footstool, put down under his feet. But is that what this means? Several times throughout scripture it says that heaven is God’s throne and earth is God’s footstool. Sometimes the image is that the temple in Jerusalem is God’s footstool. Numerous times the people of God are called to come before God and worship at his footstool. This is not an image of military victory over one’s enemies; it is an image of rebellious children of God being forgiven and worshipping their savior. Listen to what follows, “This is the covenant I will make with them … I will put my law in their hearts and I will write them on their minds” and “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” In Jeremiah these words were spoken about the nation of Israel. Here the author applies them to Jesus’ enemies, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Jesus is waiting for his enemies to be made holy.

So what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for the Kingdom of God? Are you waiting for the time when heaven and earth will be joined and God will make his dwelling with humanity once again? Are you waiting for Jesus to forgive the sins of those who continue to rebel against God? Are you waiting for Jesus to give them new hearts so that they may know and follow God’s laws? Are you waiting for Jesus to make them Holy? Are you waiting for that day when they join with us in worship? Are you waiting for what Jesus is waiting for? Then let us follow the words of Hebrews and “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with full assurance of faith” and “let us spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”  Let us wait with patient expectation by bearing witness to the love and mercy of God by worshipping him and through our deeds of loving kindness. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Completing and perfecting god, in your Son’s cross you took on the grief and failure of the world, and in his resurrection you dismantled the power of sin and death. Look with mercy on all your people whose longings are unmet. When your children plead for the chance to be creative, productive, or nurturing, give them gentleness, fulfillment and purpose. When your people yearn to bring joy to the life of others, comfort to the afflicted, or trust to the wounded, give them courage, wisdom, and patience. When your kingdom seems far off, strengthen you church to wait with faith and hope and love, until the day when you are all in all, on God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen[3]



[1] Quoted in Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting: Being Alert to God’s Presence in Our Lives,” in The Weavings Reader: Living with God in the World (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1993), 70.

[2] Nouwen, 66.

[3] Samuel Wells and Abigail Kocher, Eucharistic Prayers (Grand Rapids, 2016: Eerdmans), 327.

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November 11, 2018 The Appearance of Righteousness
(Mark 12:38-44; Hebrews 9:24-28) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] A couple of weeks ago we talked a bit about Halloween and how sometimes people do scary things on Halloween. But people also just do fun stuff on Halloween. When I was little I often picked costumes for Halloween that weren’t scary but just fun. One year I was a football player and another year I was a cowboy. On Halloween people dress up as someone else just for fun. But sometimes we pretend to be someone we are not. Sometimes we might pretend to be smarter than we are so someone will like us. Or we might pretend that we like a certain movie because someone else likes that movie.

Jesus once told his disciples about some people who pretended to be something they were not. He warned the disciples about the teachers of the Law who liked to dress in long robes and then go to the temple so everyone would see them at the temple. They liked to sit in the best places at church so everyone would see them at church. And when it was their turn to pray, they prayed really long prayers so everyone would think that they loved God and obeyed him perfectly. But they did all this as if they were wearing a costume. It was all pretend because if there was a person who was in need, they wouldn’t help them. And even worse, they would steal from people who had less than them.

Well when you dress up for Halloween, I bet that no matter what costume you wear, your parents know who you are. You might be able to go around your neighborhood and your neighbors won’t know you, but your parents always know who you are. It is like that with God. We might pretend to be something we are not, but God always knows who we really are. When I was young and dressed up for Halloween, I was always glad my parents knew who I was. And when there were those times I pretended to be something I wasn’t so someone at school might like me, I was always glad I never had to pretend with my parents. In the same way I am glad that we never have to pretend with God. He always knows who we are. God knows we are not perfect who we don’t have to pretend with God. He knows who we are and we can know that we are his.
[End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Today is Veteran’s day, a day when we remember and recognize those who have served their country in the various branches of the military. To serve in the military is to offer your life for the good of the country. It is an honorable and selfless thing to do. It is a sacrifice some make on behalf of the many.

On some special days last week’s World Hunger Sunday, I have to watch myself that I say that we are recognizing, or remembering such and such a day instead of celebrating such and such a day. We remember and recognize the tragedy of 9/11 each year on its anniversary, but we don’t celebrate it. We remember and recognize those soldiers who gave their lives in service to their country on Memorial Day, but we don’t celebrate that they died. We recognize World Hunger Sunday, but we don’t celebrate the fact that 462 million adults around the world are underweight and that 155 million children under the age of 5 suffer from stunted growth.

For some of the same reasons I hesitate a bit to say that we celebrate Veterans Day. There are things we can celebrate on Veterans Day. We can celebrate the end of past wars. We can celebrate that many veterans returned home. But while I honor and deeply appreciate the service and the sacrifice our veterans have made, I find it hard to celebrate their service because I cannot celebrate the cause of their service.  The only reason that people serve in any military anywhere is because nations go to war against one another. The only reason we have veterans is that we live in a world in which we sometimes find it necessary to authorize some men and some women to kill others. I find that hard to celebrate. While it is good and right to honor veterans for their sacrifice, their bravery, and their service, I never want to glorify war.  

Likewise, we should be cautious about how we consider the widow in our Gospel lesson this morning. It would be easy to hold the widow up as a hero of faith. It would be easy to say that we should all emulate her. When we pass around the offering plate later in the service will you be giving “large amounts” out of your wealth? Or will you be putting in everything – all you have to live on?  She gave much out of her poverty, but what is wealth? Can your wealth compare to the love of God? Can your wealth compare to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross? In the face of Christ is not our wealth utter poverty? Shouldn’t we all, wealthy or poor, follow the example of the widow and give all that we have?

Jesus, however, does not simply hold up the widow as an example of righteous behavior that we ought to emulate. And Mark places deliberately this story in his narrative in such a way to make it more than just an illustration of self-sacrifice. As we saw last week, this story takes place within a larger section that begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey while the crowds proclaim that he is the Son of David. It is the story of the return of the Messiah to Jerusalem. The section ends with his sermon in chapter 13 which has much to do with his “return” at the end of the age. The main theme of the section is the nature of his authority as the Messiah which is played out through a series of controversies between Jesus and the religious authorities in the center of the section. All the action takes place in the temple and Jesus’ critique centers the temple system. The two short stories we read this morning are structurally mirrored by two stories at the beginning of the section in which Jesus critiques the temple system – he curses the fig tree that has failed to produce fruit and he cleanses the temple of the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals. Last week I argued that those stories had to do with injustice. Thus the stories today also has to do with injustice.

This is obvious in the first story. Jesus criticizes the religious leaders for their hypocrisy. As religious leaders they are supposed to set an example of righteousness. The people should be able to look to them to see how one ought to live one’s life in the presence of God. The religious leaders, love to be looked to. “They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect,” Jesus says. They desire “the most important seats in the synagogue and the places of honor at banquets.” They carry on as though they should be looked at and imitated. But, says Jesus, “They devour widow’s houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.” They are not concerned with matters of justice or mercy, and their religious behavior is only for show.

Now scholars aren’t certain exactly how the religious leaders might have “devoured widows’ houses,” but the following story gives us a possibility. The teachers of the law and other religious leaders did not receive a salary for their work, but lived on the charity of the people. Like the televangelists, they could have preyed upon those who were really in no position to support them, like widows. In the second story Jesus points out a widow who gives everything she has to the temple treasury. While we may be tempted to uphold her as an example of self-sacrificial giving, we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that she is living under or within a religious system in which she feels it necessary to give all she has to live on.

So let us respect and honor this widow for her act of generosity, but let us not celebrate the unjust system that has pressured her into giving all she has to live on. Let us not say to those who are poor that their poverty does not really matter, that what really matters is spiritual things. Let us not use this poor widow to say that the church should not be involved in politics. It is often said that we should love the sinner but hate the sin. In this case we should love the saint but hate the system.

So Jesus warns us of the hypocrisy of the wealthy and the religious elites. He warns us against false and empty demonstrations of righteousness. They put on the appearance of righteousness while upholding a system that bleeds the poor dry. But where is the alternative? Where can we find a true demonstration of righteousness?

Last week we saw that the love of God and neighbor is at center of Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders. After several religious leaders challenge Jesus’ authority, someone who is impressed by Jesus’ answers asks, “What is the greatest commandment.” Jesus responds “The most important one is this … ‘Love the Lord your God’ … The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” So Jesus’ criticizes the religious authorities and the wealthy elites because they put on an appearance of righteousness, they appear to love God, but they fail to love their neighbor. And if they fail to love their neighbor, then they cannot truly love God.

In the next story, the story that precedes our text for this morning, Jesus turns the tables on his interrogators. He asks the crowds, “Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the Son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?”

When you read this passage, do you wonder, “What in the world is Jesus talking about? What is this all about?” Well, I have been making the case that this whole section is about the true nature of authority, the authority of Jesus, the Messiah. Here we have the Lord, that is, God, Yahweh, speaking to David’s Lord, the Messiah, telling him to take his place on his heavenly throne. The Messiah’s authority is based upon his righteousness.

We normally think of righteousness as good and right and moral behavior. But righteousness in the biblical sense is a declaration of our status before God. It is a declaration that we are right with God. Right behavior, loving behavior, then flows out of our relationship with God. Loving behavior is authoritative behavior not only because it is generative, but because it flows from our relationship with the being from which all things derive their being.

Earlier in this section the religious leaders begin their challenges of Jesus in 11:28 by asking him, “By what authority are you doing these things? … Who gave you authority to do this?” Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer, but turns the table on them. But here, in 12:35, Jesus gives them a straight answer. The Messiah is given his authority by God. He received his authority in heaven. Jesus’ authority comes from his standing before God who has given him his throne. His authority comes from his righteousness.

And so the story in Mark goes. Out of that righteousness Jesus acts with loving authority, or with authoritative love. He has returned to Jerusalem to reclaim the throne of David, but he does so not by taking up a sword, but by taking up a cross. And as he predicted, the chief priests and teachers of the law arrest him and hand him over to the Romans. He is mocked and beaten and lifted up on a cross. He dies and is buried. But when some of the women come three days later to anoint Jesus’ body with spices, they find an angel at the tomb who says,  “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Looking back on all this, the author of the letter to the Hebrews explains that the actions Jesus took in Jerusalem were mirrored by things that happened in heaven. On earth Jesus entered into Jerusalem, he cleansed the temple, and then he offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. In heaven, through this same death, Jesus entered the true temple for he entered into the very presence of God. In verse 24 it says “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. … he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

The teachers of the Law made an appearance, a show, of righteousness in the temple courts with their flowing robes and their long prayers. But true righteousness appeared in heaven in bodily form in the resurrected Jesus. And through his righteousness Jesus now invites all to have faith in him and so to be joined to him. Those who are joined to him by faith are considered righteous by God. God declares us to be right with him. He forgives our sins and remembers them no more. Having been joined to Jesus through faith, having been made righteous by his loving sacrifice, we are thus called to live out of the righteousness granted to us by the grace and mercy of God.

You see, when we try to be righteous ourselves, when we try to of our own efforts to obey God and to be good people, we often end up like the teachers of the law. We end up putting up an appearance of righteousness. But God can always see through our flowing robes and our “long prayers.” He knows that we are not perfect. He knows that we are still sinful. But yet he has come to us in Jesus and through Jesus he forgives our sins and declares that we are righteous.  And having been declared righteous, being sure that we are in good standing before God, we are freed from the necessity of all pretense. We don’t have to appear to be righteous. Instead we are freed to love. We are freed to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. And we are freed to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

[Silence]

Lord our God, in Jesus Christ you have taught us

that love is the fulfilling of the law.

Send your Holy Spirit upon us,

and pour into our hearts

that most excellent gift of love,

that we may love you with our whole being,

and our neighbors as ourselves;

through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you in unity with the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

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November 4, 2018 The First Commandment of All
(Mark 12:28-34) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When I was young I remember sometimes I didn’t like the rules my parents had, or understand why they had the rules that they had. Sometimes I would ask, “Why do I have to go to bed at 9:00? Why can’t I stay up until 9:30? Why do I have to eat my vegetables? Why do I have to clean my room?” Sometimes my parents had reasons for why they made the rules they made. But even if they told me those reasons, sometimes I would ask again, “But why?” When I did that my parents would sometimes respond with, “Because I said so.”

Now as a child, I never liked this answer very much. It never really told me why I had to do something or why I couldn’t do something. But as a parent, I have come to understand why parents say this. I have sometimes told Evan or Elise, “Because I said so,” when they have asked why they have to follow a rule.

When parents say, “Because I said so,” here is what I think they often mean. As a parent I want to do what is best for my child. It is your parent’s job to do what is best for you. They love you and want you to grow up to be the best person you can be. They make rules because they think to become the best person you can be means you need certain things like enough sleep, and good food. You also need to learn to behave in certain ways, with kindness and respect and so on. When they say “Because I said so,” it means because of their experience, because they are older, they believe that following this rule will be good for you, and will help you become the best person you can be. In short, they make these rules because they love you.

In the Gospel of Mark, Mark tells of one time when a teacher of the law came up to Jesus and asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus answers, “The most important one is “Love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There are no more important commands than these.” You see, love is the greatest commandment because all the other commandments help us learn how to love God and to love others. And love is the greatest commandment because God made all the commandments so that we could be the best people we can be. So we are. So we should obey the most important commandments to love God and our neighbor because God said so, which means because God loves us and wants us to be the best people we can be. [End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Of all the stories Mark tells in his gospel we might be most tempted to lift this story out of its context and hold it up as something that stands on its own. We might think that the command to love God and neighbor has no “context” because it is the context for everything else. Jesus says love is the first, the greatest, the most important commandment. In Matthew’s version Jesus says that all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. The Apostle Paul proclaimed that love is the fulfillment of the law. Love is thus the basis for everything else. But when we pull this out of context and we ask “Why is love the greatest commandment?”, we get an answer that is like, “Because I told you so.” Without a context, we can’t see the true importance of God’s command to love.

Last week I argued that Jesus redefined, or corrected the common definition of the Kingdom of God in the first half of the gospel and of the “Messiah” in the previous section of the gospel. This week’s lesson comes in the next section of the Gospel which I believe has to do with the nature of authority and the appropriate response to authority. This section begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds proclaim him the Messiah– Jesus thus makes a claim to authority while critiquing our notion of authority. The section ends with Jesus’ teaching about the end times which centers around the return of the Messiah and the establishment of the Kingdom – again it is about authority.

But Mark’s teaching on the nature of authority has two sides. First the true and good example of authority in Jesus, and second Jesus’ critique of the false and wicked example of authority in the Jewish religious leaders. After entering Jerusalem Jesus clears out the temple of those selling animals and trading money. His sermon at the end of the section in chapter 13 begins with a prophecy of the literal destruction of the temple. In the middle of the section are several stories in which the religious leaders confront Jesus around issues of authority while he is teaching in the temple. The whole section is thus steeped in Jesus’ critique of the Jewish leaders and the religious system they uphold which is centered in the temple.

So Jesus establishes his authority and he critiques the authority of the Jewish leaders, but why? Because they bear no fruit. Because they do not have the appropriate response to God’s authority. The story of the cleansing of the temple is surrounded by the story of the fig tree that bears no fruit. This is soon followed by the parable of the tenants who fail to provide the owner of the vineyard with the fruit they are required to provide. There is no time to defend this now, but I will next week, but let me suggest that Mark evokes Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah 5. Isaiah draws an image of Israel as a vineyard planted by God. He then says, “Then [God] looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. … he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” The fruit God and Jesus look for is the righteous and just behavior of God’s people, but they only produce bad fruit.

Mark thus invites us to understand the greatest commandments, the commandments to love God and to love our neighbor, in the context of authority and our response to God’s authority. God, you see, exercises the authority of love so that we respond in kind. When love forms the foundation of our actions, we produce the fruit of justice and righteousness.

So what do love and authority have to do with each other? How does understanding God’s command to love him and our neighbor in the context of authority help us? Andy Crouch defines authority as the capacity to take meaningful action.[1] Parents have innate authority because they are responsible for raising their children. Many of the actions they take with respect to their children are authoritative actions because they have an effect on the children for good or for ill. They are meaningful actions. A worker in a widget factory who just presses a button to start or stop a conveyor belt has little authority. His actions are constrained. They have little meaning.

But what makes an action meaningful, or for that matter good? What determines if the authority we exercise is good or not? Well let’s think about the word “authority” for a bit. Authority is related to the word “author.” To have authority, or at least good authority, is to author something. It is to be creative. An action is meaningful if it is creative in some way. If my preaching inspires you to love God and your neighbor more, then I am preaching with authority. As a parent we hope to sort of be co-authors of our children’s lives.  We do what we do so that they grow and become who God desires them to be. Parents want to contribute to the ongoing creation of the persons our children are becoming. Good authority is thus generative and it leads to the flourishing of others.

We can therefore see the close connection between authority and love, for what is more generative than love. In the beginning God spoke with both authority and love as he formed space in this universe for life to spring out of the seas and out of the ground. He spoke with loving authority as he made humankind in his image and told them to be fruitful and multiply and to act, like God, as God’s representatives with loving authority over the rest of creation.

Mark places this story in the midst of stories about Jesus’ authority, and stories about Jesu’s critique of the Jewish leader’s authority, to say that love is that which forms the basis of true and good authority. Love is the basis for all true and good meaningful action.

But what about false and evil meaningful action? There is not time to spell all this out in detail, but the surrounding stories demonstrate that false and evil authority is based on fear, selfishness, hatred, lack of compassion, on a host of things other than love. False authority thus leads not to generativity, but to degeneration, dissolution, fragmentation, and breakdown. True authority leads to justice and righteousness; false authority to injustices and oppression.

Jesus embodies this critique when he clears out the temple of the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals. You know that if you go to an event like a concert or a big football game, the price of parking climbs higher and higher the closer you go. And if you buy a hotdog in the stadium it costs twice as much as at the vendor on the street. The money changers and those selling animals are in the temple because pilgrims who have travelled far need temple coins for their offerings and animals for their sacrifices. Those who live near the temple by would be able to bring their own animals and would have an opportunity to change their money elsewhere. But the pilgrims must pay a premium price to worship. Jesus is mad not only because this activity disrupts the prayer and worship in the temple but also because the pilgrims coming to the temple are being ripped off. The temple system is unjust because it is based on profits and power rather than on loving authority.

So love forms the basis of true authority because authority and love are both generative and creative. What then is the appropriate response to God’s loving authority? The word authority is also related to the word authorize. God not only uses his authority over us to command certain things, he uses his loving authority to authorize our actions. We were made in God’s image and so the appropriate response to God’s authority is to exercise authority as he does. The point of being made in his image is that we are authorized to act in his image.

My friends, God so desires us to be the best people we can be. Let us therefore love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. And let us love our neighbors as ourselves. In doing so we will carry out meaningful action in loving authority as God’s authorized agents in the world. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silence]

Almighty God, we love you for you are good and kind and faithful and merciful to us and to all people. In Christ Jesus your love became embodied in flesh and blood. Grant us the gift of your Spirit so that we might imitate Christ Jesus in all we do and so love our neighbors as ourselves. For it is in Jesus name we pray. Amen.



[1] Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2013).

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October 28, 2018 What do you want me to do for you?
(Mark 10:46-52) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning’s gospel reading has a lot to do with seeing, with sight, with how we see things. So what do you see in this picture (a stack of money)? Now some people just see a bunch of money, but if I were to tell you that I would give you all this money, then what would you “see”? Some people would see all the stuff they might buy with this money. They might see some shoes they have wanted, maybe some toys, maybe they would see some special snacks they would buy. But other people might see what they could do with this money. Maybe they would see someone who was sick and the medicine this money could buy for them. Maybe they would see someone who was hungry and the meal this money could buy for them. Maybe they would see someone who didn’t have a home, and they would see a place for them to stay.

In the gospel of Mark Jesus has told his disciples that he is the Christ, which means he is the Son of David. It means he is the King of Israel (holds up a crown). Last week we read a story about the disciples James and John. When they saw Jesus’ as the King they asked Jesus if they could sit at his right hand and his left hand when he became King. That meant that they wanted some of Jesus’ power. They wanted other people to look up at them and honor them. They wanted to be able to tell other people what to do. When they see Jesus’ crown, they see a chance for their own power.

This morning we will read that when Jesus went through Jericho, he passed by a blind man named Bartimaeus. Now even though Bartimaeus couldn’t see, he knew Jesus was the King, so he shouted out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus stopped and asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”  So who do you think truly saw Jesus as he truly was? James and John? Or blind Bartimaeus? [End of children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

What do you want me to do for you?” It is not only interesting to note, but significant, that Jesus asks this question not only of Bartimaeus, but also of James and John. With this question Mark links our story from this morning with the preceding story which we read last week. Notice also the repetition of “Son.”  Jesus, the Son of David asks Bartimaeus, the Son of Honor, and James and John, the Sons of Thunder, “What do you want me to do for you?” Mark links these stories. He wants us to read them side by side, so let’s compare and contrast them a bit.

Let me also invite you to look at this passage, or rather these two passages from two different perspectives. First we can look at these passages from the perspective of those who seek Jesus out. Second, we can look at these passages from Jesus’ perspective. The first may reveal something about ourselves, the second something about how we ought to follow Jesus.

So first, from the perspective of those who seek Jesus out. Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” How would you answer if Jesus asked you? It is a revealing question if you think about it.  Last week we saw how fear can reveal our deepest desires, but so can Jesus’ question. James and John want seats of power. Bartimaeus wants to see. We also get a sense of what each person in these stories desires by how they address Jesus. James and John come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Bartimaeus calls out from the side of the road. He gets pushed back down and told to be quiet, but he calls out all the louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me?” So how are you addressing Jesus? What do you want Jesus to do for you? What are your deepest desires?

So why do you seek Jesus out? “What do you want [Jesus] to do for you?” What is the purpose of religion for you? For it is through religious practices that we seek Jesus out. It is through religious practices that we worship God. We come to church to read God’s scriptures, to pray to him, to confess our sins and receive his mercy. But what is the point of it all? Why are you here? What do you seek? Do you seek solace from a busy week? Are you looking for some nice words to think about and maybe make you believe that this world isn’t as bad as it sometimes seems? Are you looking to get some sense of approval from God? Are you looking to be healed? Forgiven? Or maybe you just like being with other people you call friends. What is the point of it all?

According to Jesus the point of it all is the Kingdom of God. Mark sums up Jesus’ ministry several times by saying that Jesus’ went through the towns healing the sick and proclaiming the good news of Kingdom of God. Jesus begins many of his parables with the words, “The kingdom of God is like.” There aren’t many parables in the Gospel of Mark, but every single one of them, whether or not they begin with “The kingdom of God is like,” is about the Kingdom of God. We may have come here for a variety of reasons, but Jesus gathers us here because of the Kingdom of God.

But what is the Kingdom of God? What is the Kingdom of God like? I have argued over the past weeks that this section in Mark, which ends with the healing of Bartimaeus and began with Jesus telling his disciples that he is the Christ, is all about Jesus redefining what Christ, what Messiah, and thus what King means. Jesus has come not as a revolutionary warrior to fight the Romans, but as the Lamb of God to take up a cross. And so as Jesus redefines what he means by Messiah, the Son of David, he continues his redefinition of the Kingdom of God found in his parables and his other teachings in the first half of the gospel.

The problem with James and John is that when they hear the Kingdom of God, they stop with the word Kingdom and then insert “of Israel” in place of God. They are seeking a worldly kingdom: A kingdom like all the other kingdoms of the world, except that they expect God to be on their side. How often do we do the same thing? In our prayer of confession, we have been praying, “We too often ask you to bless what we do rather than seeking to do what you bless.” How often do we go about our business, building or managing our own kingdoms and then turn to God and ask him to bless our work? How often do we ask if what we are doing actually lines up with the values, the goals, and, and this is important, the methods of the Kingdom of God? How often do we assume that expanding the power and influence of the church is equal to the expansion of the Kingdom of God on earth? How often, like James and John, do Christians seek positions of power and prestige for themselves or for the church and assume that they are serving the Kingdom?

What I have been trying to argue over the past weeks is that the method of Jesus’ ministry is not only just as important as the goal of his ministry, it is part and parcel of the goal of his ministry. He refuses to take up worldly power and instead submits to it through the cross not only to overcome the powers of sin and death that rampage over this world, but to demonstrate the very nature of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ method, the cross, is not just a means to an end, it is a mark of the Kingdom of God. It is an example of the Kingdom. No, more so, it is a manifestation of the Kingdom. The cross is an instance of the Kingdom of God.

But for some reason Christians throughout the ages have forgotten this. We seem to think that the nature of the Kingdom of God changed once Jesus ascended to his throne in heaven. We seem to think that all that sacrificial stuff was just about getting our sins forgiven and not about what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. We seem to think a lot like James and John who come seeking a share in Jesus’ power. But Jesus only promises them a share in his suffering and in his service, for that is the true nature of the Kingdom of God.

So we can come to Jesus like James and John, seeking a share in Jesus’ power and glory and honor. Or, we can come to Jesus like Bartimaeus, saying “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” We can come to Jesus knowing that we are in need of Jesus, that we are in need of God, and that we are in need of mercy. Bartimaeus comes to Jesus knowing he is blind, His deepest desire is to see. Do we come knowing that we are blind? Is our deepest desire to see? Do we know what our deepest need is?

Now at this point we have to be careful. We can spiritualize Bartimaeus’ blindness and so dismiss it.  Christians have too often spiritualized the poor person’s poverty, and the lame person’s disability only to dismiss them. Christians have too often seen the physical needs of the people in the gospels simply as symbols of our supposedly “true” and “deeper” spiritual needs. We all sing with John Newton, “I was blind but now I see,” knowing that Newton was never physically blind, but spiritually blind. It tells of Newton’s conversion to faith in Christ. So we tell ourselves that we don’t have to worry about physical blindness, or physical poverty, for the Kingdom of God is a spiritual reality.

The problem is that if we spiritualize the stories of Jesus’ healings, we miss the radical nature of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was not just converting people in a religious sense so that they might follow him. He was releasing them from a religious system that was also a social system that oppressed them. People assumed the blind, the lame, the deaf, and the poor were in those situations because of their own sin. They assumed that such people were unrighteous. Many of them were unclean according to the cleanliness laws and so ostracized from the community. People assumed that they were not a part of the true people of God and thus would be left out of God’s kingdom when it came. But Jesus proclaimed that the good news of the Kingdom was not only that it was coming, but that it belonged to such as these, the poor, the blind, the lame, and to sinners.

When we spiritualize Jesus’ healings, then we can easily come to Jesus from the perspective of James and John. We can take on all the trappings of religion. We can appear to be a devout follower of Jesus. We can make it appear that our deepest desire is to serve God and the Kingdom. But our deepest desire will be for a kingdom not like the Kingdom of God, but like any other kingdom of this world. Richard Rhor, a Franciscan Friar and author, has famously said, “Religion is one of the safest places to hide from God.” By appearing religious, saying all the right things, singing all the right songs, we can appear to be followers of Jesus, while we hide from God. And we hide from God because we avoid all the places God shows up. For God and Jesus keep showing up by the side of slaves, in the midst of the poor, healing the blind, and sitting at table with sinners.

But Jesus heals Bartimaeus physically, socially, and spiritually. The blind man, more than any of the disciples, saw Jesus for who he was: the Son of David who came to have mercy on the poor and the outcast. Jesus therefore heals Bartimaeus not only so that he can physically see, but also that he can freely follow Jesus and join the new community of the Kingdom of God forming around Jesus. As with all those he healed, Jesus gives Bartimaeus a new spiritual life as well as new physical life. The kingdoms of this world separate the spiritual from the physical and then use the spiritual as a means to worldly power. They appear religious, but they use religion to seek a seat to the right and left of the king. The Kingdom of God, however, joins the spiritual and the physical and advances in this world not through worldly power, but through worldly weakness.

So what do you want Jesus to do for you? Do you want him to affirm and bless your desires for power, or prestige, or success? Are you coming to him like James and John, asking, “Do for me whatever I ask?” Or are you coming to him like Bartimaeus? “Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me?” Are you coming to him recognizing your need for him? Do you admit your dependence on him?

That’s the question these texts ask us if we approach them from the perspective of those who come to Jesus. But what do these texts ask us if we approach them from the perspective of Jesus? They ask us how are we going to follow Jesus. How are we going to serve Jesus and the kingdom? What is the method of our ministry?

James and John seek positions of power and so they hope to serve Jesus from positions of power. But Jesus tells them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right and left is not for me to grant.” You will, in other words be led into suffering and service if you follow me for “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Power is the method of the kingdoms of this world; service and suffering are the methods of the Kingdom of God.

And that brings us back to Jesus’ question. “What do you want me to do for you?” is a question a King may ask a loyal subject, but it is also a question a servant asks a master. Throughout the gospel, Jesus almost never initiates contact with individual people. He preaches and teaches to large groups, but individuals come to him. When he gets into disputes with the Pharisees or the Sadducees, they come to him seeking to trap him with a question. When he heals someone, they come to him or are brought to him by friends. The only exception is the man in the Synagogue with the withered hand whom Jesus heals to demonstrate that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. The only individuals Jesus approaches are the disciples he calls to follow him.

As we have seen, Jesus method of brining in the Kingdom is through sacrifice and through service, but it is also through invitation. Through his preaching and teaching and healing, Jesus invited all to join with this new community of the Kingdom of God and to follow him. Now that Jesus reigns in heaven, we who follow Jesus, are God’s invitation to others to enter into this new community of the Kingdom and to follow Jesus. How are we living as invitations for others to see Jesus? How are we living as invitations for other to see Jesus as Immanuel, the God who came to be with us? Invitations to see Jesus as the Lord who came to serve. Invitations to see Jesus as the King who came to heal. Invitations to see Jesus as the Lamb who came to give his life as a ransom for many. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silence] Merciful God, you sent Jesus among us to seek and save the lost, to heal the sick, to let the oppressed go free, to give sight to the blind. Grant that we, like Bartimaeus, may readily see Jesus as the Son of David, joyfully receive his mercy, and eagerly follow him as our Lord and Savior. May our lives point others to Christ and to his kingdom. For it is in his name that we pray. Amen.

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October 21, 2018 Not so with you.
(Mark 10:35-45) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Fall is finally here. The leaves are turning color. It is getting colder out. The sun goes down earlier and comes up later. That means that a certain fall holiday is coming soon. Halloween is right around the corner. What are some of the things people do on Halloween?

People do all kinds of things for Halloween, but a lot of the things have something in common. People do a lot of scary things for Halloween. People dress up as ghosts or witches and monsters. They decorate their yards or their walls with grave stones and skeletons. People go to haunted houses. Maybe they watch scary movies. I never quite understood this, but some people like to be scared. Do you like to be scared? Do you like scary things?

What do you do when you are scared? What helps you when you are afraid? When I am afraid, I like to be find someone else to be with. When I was young I would find my mom or dad or maybe my older brother. When you are afraid it helps just to be with someone else, but what really helps is to be with someone who loves you. The Bible tells us in 1 John 4:18 that “perfect love drives out fear.” When we know that someone loves us, we know that someone cares for us. We know that we are not alone. And that helps drive away our fear.  Now our parents and grandparents love us lots, but what really drives out fear is perfect love, and only God loves us perfectly. So if you are ever afraid, find someone who loves you, and then let their love for you remind you of God’s perfect love for you. [End of Childern’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

If you will recall from the previous weeks, Jesus has openly admitted to his followers that he is the Christ. He has laid claim to the throne of David. He is the rightful King of Israel. His disciples and his followers therefore dream of major changes coming to pass in their lives and in the fortunes of Israel. A Messiah means that God is going to act to save his people. A Messiah means that Israel’s enemies will be overcome. A Messiah means that Israel will be freed from her oppressors.

But Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem with nothing. He has a band of disciples and some followers, but they are not armed. He has no army. A shadow of fear falls upon his followers and envelops them like an early morning fog. For his part Jesus seems to be of little help. He doesn’t calm their fears. He doesn’t tell them how God will send a heavenly host of angels to fight for them. Instead, he names their worst fear: he tells them for the third time that he will be betrayed into the hands of the religious leaders and crucified. What then, his followers wonder, will happen to them? Are not those who follow him in danger as well? If Jesus is arrested as a subversive revolutionary, what is to prevent the authorities from arresting and crucifying his followers? If claiming to be the Messiah is treasonous, is not following a Messiah also treasonous?

We read the gospel stories so often and they are so familiar to us that we easily skim over the depth of the drama. When we read that Jesus is heading for Jerusalem while openly claiming to be the rightful King of Israel, do we appreciate the danger he and his followers are in? We know how the story turns out so it is easy to dismiss the disciples’ fear as just short sightedness, and perhaps willful ignorance. Hasn’t Jesus told them that he will rise again after dying? But how many of us who believe in Jesus resurrection, who believe that we will be raised to life after we die could face imminent death without fear? For that matter, how do we face the fears we have?

So what are our greatest fears? We don’t live in fear of repression by an imperial army. We don’t live in fear of being crucified. But it seems to me that the climate in the United States has been one of growing fear ever since 9/11. I suppose it is understandable that we fear the possibility of a terrorist attacks more than we did 20 years ago. But there are a host of other fears that are greater now than they were 20 years ago that have nothing to do with 9/11. Even though crime rates have dropped over all, people are more afraid of violent crime. Roxann and I let Evan and Elise walk the 6 blocks to South Side Elementary school ten years ago, but recently I have read stories in which parents have been accused of neglect at such behavior.

During President Obama’s tenure, many conservatives stoked fears of socialism – the government is going to take over your health care, the government is going to tax you to death – and by the way, Obama is really a Muslim who has sympathies for ISIS. Today many on the left fear the erosion of our democratic institutions, the freedom of the press, and war with Iran or North Korea. President Trump regularly stokes the fears of his supporters of the danger of the immigrants crossing our borders, of trade deals that decimate our industry, and, of course, the ever-present threat of terrorists. And just this past month the specter of the catastrophic effects of global warming yet to come made landfall with hurricanes Florence and Michael. We live in a fog of fear.

So what are your greatest fears? Perhaps they are among the things I mentioned. Maybe you think some of the things I mentioned are overblown fears, irrational fears. Maybe your greatest fear is more existential. Maybe your faith in God has been challenged by the failures of the church, or by a personal tragedy, or as the truths you grew up with no longer seem to fit with your knowledge of the world. One of my greatest fears is simply this rising tide of fear. Some or many of the fears stoked by the left and the right are baseless. But it is fearsome to think of what people driven by fear may do. People driven by fear think mainly of themselves. They act out of self-preservation. They discount evidence that would counter their fears. People who act out of fear will justify the most egregious of acts.

I bring all this up to make the point that just as we all have our fears, and as we live in a culture of fear, the fear felt by the disciples and Jesus’ followers was real. Mark sets the scene by explicitly drawing our attention to their fear. As Jesus headed toward Jerusalem Mark writes that “the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid.”  Mark therefore invites us to examine our fears, to face them, and to ask what do we do with our fears. Do we suppress them? Do we fight them? Do we allow them to drive us? Do we turn them over to God?

Helen Cepero of North Park Theological Seminary writes, “[Fear] is often the place where God wants to meet us. When we are able to enter into our real fears, we find ourselves on the edge of our true desires as well.” [1] It is interesting to note how James and John respond to their fears and reveal their true desires. After Jesus predicts his death, they approach him and say, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” In other words, once you have defeated the Romans and been crowned as the King of Israel, let us be your Secretary of State and your Minister of Defense.

At the edge of their fears James and John reveal their desire for power and position. This is telling because it also reveals how they believe their fear ought to be dealt with. Fear should drive Jesus and his band of followers toward power. The imperial power of Rome must be met with the imperial power of God and his Messiah. Fear exposes our weakness and our vulnerabilities and drives us to seek power and control.

Is this not how fear drives us? The fear of losing the midterms, the fear of impeachment, the fear of losing the next presidential election has led some on the extreme right to raise the specter of civil unrest, even civil war. Those on the extreme left have raised the possibility of expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court to take it back from the conservatives. In Congressional races across the country any hint of someone being willing to compromise with the other side spells the end of a political career. We have turned politics into an all or nothing game. And it is a game of power. Or maybe fear drives us into hiding. Maybe our fears and doubts about God and the church, or about society in general lead us to just give up on it all as we slide into an apathetic agnosticism. Maybe our desire is not for power, but mere escape.

Jesus turns to James and John and he invites them to face their fears and to live through them as they trust in God. “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” They answer that they can and Jesus affirms that they will endure the same cup and the same baptism, but the end result will not be what they expect for Jesus tells them “to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.”

Jesus invites James and John to live through their fears. Jesus says at the end of our passage, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The cup that Jesus drinks is his crucifixion. It is the cup he shares with his disciples at the last supper during the meal that indicates that Jesus is the new Passover Lamb. The way he is going to overcome fear is to live into it and die to it so that God may show his greater power and his greater love by raising Jesus from the dead. Jesus leads his followers into a life that is beyond fear for it is a life moved by faith.

The cup Jesus drinks points to his crucifixion while the baptism he undergoes is a baptism of service. At Jesus’ baptism the Spirit anointed Jesus for a ministry. Since his baptism Jesus’ ministry has been one of service to the poor, the outcast, and the vulnerable. He has gathered to himself fishermen, tax-collectors, and zealots to be his disciples. He has healed the sick, given sight to the blind, cured the lame, cleansed the unclean, and eaten with sinners. He has reached out to those who live in fear on the edge of society and said, “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Perfect love casts out fear and welcomes the least of these into community.

The cup that James and John each must drink is thus also the cup of suffering and the baptism that they must each must undergo is a baptism into service. The cup they are to drink and the baptism they are to undergo come from living out the gospel, from following Jesus. For Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

The cup of suffering and the baptism of service are linked. They are two side of the same coin. The imagery surrounding baptism has always involved the imagery of death and rebirth. The Israelites went down into the waters of the Red Sea where the waters swallowed up their Egyptian rulers. In coming up out of the waters they had to put to death their old way of life as slaves and take on their new way of life as children of God. Jonah was baptized through his ordeal in the belly of the fish. His actions and his speech were reborn, but the story ends without answering the question of whether or not his heart followed suit. The apostle Paul teaches that the baptism we receive in Christ is a union with his death as our old selves are put to death and a union with his resurrection as our new selves come to life.

Jesus thus assures James and John that if they continue to follow him then they will experience suffering, but they will also undergo a baptism that leads them through death and into new life. They will undergo a baptism in which their old selves with its desire for power and prestige, will be put to death. But this death will make way for their new selves, through which they will live lives in service to God and the Kingdom, which means they will live as servants to all. When the other disciples heard about Jesus’ conversation with James and John they became indignant. But Jesus said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

How then will James and John face their fears? How will we face our fears? From where will we obtain the courage to put aside our desire for power and control over others? From where will we summon the determination to stand firm rather than to hide away or escape? Cepero writes, “Such courage to face our fears will not come to us because we are brave, but because we know we are loved. … Only by allowing God’s love to meet us at the point of our greatest fear will we move from being people of  fear to being people of faith.”

It is the perfect love of God that casts out fear. We can only hope to be a people who remain calm and compassionate, not driven by fear in a culture of fear, if we are a people who know that we are loved. If we are a people who know that we are loved, then we can live out of that love into a life of faith, a life of faithfulness, a life of selfless service to others, a life that proclaims the good news of Jesus and bears witness to the coming Kingdom. Again, Cepero writes, “At the intersection of our deepest fear and greatest desire, God waits for us with the gift of Presence, the hope of grace.” As they walk along to Jerusalem, Jesus is present with the disciples and the followers at the intersection of their greatest fears and their greatest desires. And so Jesus does not call us to face our fears alone. He calls us only to go where he has already gone with the assurance that he remains there with us and of life after death. For Jesus concludes, “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence.

Almighty God,

through your Word you called all things into being.

In your Word made flesh, you came to live among us,

sympathize with us in our weaknesses,

and to become the servant of all.

By your Spirit join us to the Risen Christ,

that we may seek not to be first,

 but to give our lives in service to our neighbors

            and to your kingdom.

In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.



[1] Helen Cepero, “Mining Below the Surface: Discerning the Gift of Presence,” Conversations: A Forum of Authentic Transformation, 6:2 (Fall/Winter 2008), pg. 51.

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October 14, 2018 Guest preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
October 7, 2018 Guest preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
September 30, 2018 In My Name
(Mark 9:38-41) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] What is your favorite color? Well what if that were the only color in the world. What if everything were red? [Pulls out a picture of a butterfly with everything colored red] Or what if everything were blue? [Blue butterfly] or Green? What would you think of a world in which there was only one color? That would be kind of boring wouldn’t it? Isn’t it so much better that God made the world with so many different colors? [picture of butterfly with many colors] 

This morning we are celebrating that God made human beings with all kinds of differences. We have different color hair, different color eyes and different color skin. Human beings also don’t live all in the same place or do things the same way. We live in different countries. We speak different languages. We wear different styles of clothing. And that is part of what makes human beings so beautiful.

Now I know that all of you were born here in the United States. But I think that you all have one or two parents or one or more grandparents who were born in another country. Is that true? Where were they born? Well that is part of what makes you each beautiful. God made us all different but yet we are all the same in at least one way. We are all God’s children. And he loves no matter where we come from or what we look like or what language we speak. [End Children’s Sermon]  

* * * * * * * * * *

We live in divided times. There are many people who are waiting in lines for days at the borders of the United States hoping for a chance to seek asylum here. Others wait in their homes for visa applications to come through, worried that some minor mistake will cause their application to be thrown out. They hear many in this country saying, “You are not one of us.” Many women, particularly those who have survived abuse, watched the Senate judiciary committee hearings on Judge Kavanaugh this week, and they heard a room full of white men saying, “You are not one of us.” When African Americans watch as yet another police officer is acquitted after shooting a young black man to death, they hear America saying, “You are not one of us.” We are divided – Republicans and Democrats; White and Black; Mexican and American. There are so many ways we say to each other, “You are not one of us.”

In such a time gathering together on a Sunday morning to celebrate our cultural and ethnic diversity is a political act. It is a political act to celebrate the different ways we grew up, the different foods we eat, the different clothes we wear, and the different languages we speak. It is a political act to recognize cultural and ethnic and national differences and say “this is us,” instead of “You are not one of us.” These differences don’t divide us. In fact, we are united not just in spite of these differences but in and through these differences. A unity that does not unite things that are different is no unity. It is at best conformity and at worst forced uniformity. We thus celebrate our unity by celebrating our diversity. This is a political act when many try to protect unity by pointing at others and saying, “You are not one of us.”

There is a danger, however, of such a celebration becoming merely political. We could celebrate our differences in order to demonstrate to the rest of society that we are not like those other people. We are not like those who fear immigrants and refugees. We are not like those who approve of policies that intimidate asylum seekers or policies that separate children from their parents. We are not like those who fear the watering down of some shared American culture, meaning some European, white American culture. We could celebrate diversity as a means of saying that others are “not one of us.” Or we could celebrate our differences by conforming to a bland tolerance which papers over deeper cultural differences. We could conform to the ideology of tolerance that is so common in our society today. The danger of becoming merely political is that we could become just another voice in the divided politics of our day and the diversity we celebrate will only be skin deep. 

Our celebration, however, is not merely political for we celebrate these differences because we worship a God who loves diversity. We worship a God who is so good and so great and so far above us that he can create an infinite variety and still call all things he created, “good.” Our celebration is not merely political because it is theological. It is a witness to the nature of our God and the nature of God’s kingdom. It is a witness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We celebrate our diversity in the unity of the name of Jesus.

Now, you may be wondering what our text has to do with ethnic and cultural differences. Or how it is in any way political. Well, I will admit that our gospel text does not speak directly to ethnic or cultural differences, but if we take it in its context in Mark’s gospel, it does shed some light on our celebration today, and it is definitely political.

So first, how is our text political? If you remember from last week, Jesus took his disciples to the region around Caesarea Philippi, a city built by Herod the Great’s son, Herod Philip and dedicated to Caesar, the Roman Emperor. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus finally admitted to his disciples that he was Israel’s Messiah, the Christ, the anointed Son of David, that is, the rightful King of the Jews. This was a highly charged political statement. It would be as if Jesus stood at the Lincoln monument in DC and called upon people to follow him as the President of the United States instead of President Trump. To claim to be the King of the Jews was treasonous against the Emperor of Rome and so it could get you crucified.

We saw over the last two weeks how Jesus, in fact, predicted that as the Messiah he would be crucified. If you turn in your bibles to Mark 10:32 you see that Jesus again predicts his crucifixion for a third time. Mark thus sets of this whole section of his gospel by these three predictions. Notice, then, that after the third prediction the disciples fail again to understand the nature of Jesus’ mission. James and John come to Jesus asking to be put at his right and left when he comes into power, that is, after Jesus comes into political power. But Jesus says, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (10:42-44).

This whole section, then is surrounded by explicitly political texts. All that which Jesus says and does, then, as he tries to teach the disciples what it means that he is the Messiah is politically charged. The kingdom Jesus announces is a kingdom that challenges all human kingdoms.  And if you are not convinced, then notice how Jesus next enters Jerusalem in such a way to spur the crowds to hail him as the one who brings the “Kingdom of our father David.”

Our text speaks into this politically charged context because it is all about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the Messiah. In the context of the day, it is therefore all about what it means to be a “righteous Jew” over against the gentiles and other “unrighteous Jews.” You see John is so conditioned by his environment that he assumes the religious paradigm of his day. Throughout the gospel Jesus has been confronting the Pharisees on their exclusive and nationalistic form of Judaism. The Pharisees were all about determining who was truly righteous. They believed that God’s Messiah would come and save his people, but only the truly righteous would be counted as God’s people. Those who were not truly righteous, like sinners and tax collectors, would be left behind. Moreover, the Messiah would not only come to save God’s righteous people but to bring judgment on the enemies of God’s righteous people – the Gentiles and the Romans.

John is still operating within this same nationalistic paradigm. It is a different formula -following Jesus is the key rather than following all the rules that the Pharisees follow – but it is the same paradigm. He is still concerned with figuring out who is in and who is out. Who is “righteous” and who is not. “Teacher,” John says, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” But Jesus says, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

Jesus lets John know that he operates by a different paradigm. His kingdom rises above human nationalism and is open to all – Jew and Gentile, sinner and saint, male and female. This is because Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who has come to fulfill the role of Israel to be a blessing to the nations. Jesus is the Son of God, the one who created all humanity and who sent Jesus into the world so that all might be reconciled to God once again. All the petty differences and distinctions and boundaries humans create to separate one from another, so that we can say that “he is not one of us,” are cast aside by this Messiah. Instead, he calls all people to put their trust, their allegiance in him. To call him Lord instead of any other person or ideology. And he sets the bar pretty low: “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

This text is political because it calls us to look above our own political horizon to the one true Lord of heaven and earth. But to do that means to operate on a wholly different paradigm. Mark connects this scene to the previous through the repetition of the words “in my name.” Last week we saw that after Jesus’ second prediction of his crucifixion the disciples argue about who is the greatest, who is the closest to Jesus, and so in their paradigm, who is the most righteous. But Jesus teaches them that in his kingdom greatness and righteousness are defined by serving. “Anyone who wants to be first must be very last, and the servant of all.” Jesus then embraces a child and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.” Jesus’ kingdom is about including those whom this world deems unimportant, those whom this world casts aside, those of whom we say they are “not one of us.” By looking to the Lord of heaven and earth  we can embrace all whom he has made.

But this is not the bland tolerance of today’s society. This is not a papering over of major differences in order to form a semblance of unity. For this unity comes “in the name of Jesus.” Jesus says, “no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus says this in the context of John wanting to exclude others, of John operating within the context of the exclusive nationalistic political and religious paradigm of his day. But in Matthew 12:30, when the Pharisees charge Jesus of casting out demons by the power of demons, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Jesus says the exact opposite thing but they point to the same truth, they point to the inclusiveness of the kingdom of God, because the contexts are different. When John wants to exclude others, Jesus says, “No, whoever is not against us is for us. My kingdom is about inclusion.” But when the Pharisees say Jesus is of the devil, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” There is a way, in others words, of setting yourself outside of Jesus’ inclusive Kingdom – by opposing it. “Whoever does not gather with me” Jesus says, “scatters.”

The failure of today’s ideology of tolerance is that it is incapable of making any real judgements. This ideology preaches that all people are to be accepted regardless of any differences. But it quickly falls apart when it faces deep cultural differences. This ideology bumbles and blusters, for instance, when faced with radically fundamentalist Muslim societies and their treatment of women. Should we truly tolerate a culture that prevents the education of women, let alone the ability for women to even function normally in public? Should we tolerate cultures that practice polygamy? I could mention other cultural practices that those who preach this bland tolerance find abhorrent, but I will spare you the details.

This ideology of tolerance falls apart because it has cut itself off from the transcendent. It is a merely human, a merely political ideology and so it has no basis over and above humanity upon which to base its judgements. Ultimately it becomes, like all human ideologies, an ideology of power. What can and can’t be tolerated is determined by whoever shouts the loudest and longest. And so you get the Anarchists facing off against the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, WV.

But we celebrate diversity in the unity of the name of Jesus. Jesus became human so that humanity itself could be remade in the image of God. Jesus acts as the Messiah, the King of the Jews by recognizing the inherent worth of every human he encounters. In his name we recognize that all humans are made in the image of God and are meant to be remade in the image of Christ. We can therefore make judgments. On the one hand we know that behavior and practices and political policies that demean others, which treat others as less than human, will not be tolerated in the Kingdom of God. Such behavior scatters people rather than gathers them. It exploits them rather than protects them. It discards them rather than cherishes them. It is behavior that cannot be done in the name of Jesus.

On the other hand, those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, deny themselves and take up their cross. Instead of playing the political power games of the kingdoms of this world, we seek to be last and servant of all. Instead of spending our time determining who is in and who is out, we seek out the lost, bind up the broken hearted, and give strength to the weary. In so doing we proclaim the image of God in each and every human being. We can thus celebrate our diversity in the unity of the name of Jesus. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Silence.)

Bless your church throughout the world by your Holy Spirit,

draw the scattered flock of Christ into a visible unity,

and make your church a sign of hope to our divided world.

Grant that we who bear your Son’s name

may be instruments of your peace,

gathering in the lost and the excluded,

bringing peace to our homes, our communities,

our nation, and our world. Amen.

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September 23, 2018 The Path to Greatness
(Mark 9:30-37) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Have you ever argued with your friends about who was better than the others? Have you ever told someone you were smarter than they were? Or maybe you bragged about how well you play the piano. Or maybe you liked to show off your new dress or your new shoes to someone. Maybe you teased someone because you could run faster than they could. For some reason it makes us feel good when are better than others. And we all feel that way sometimes.

Even the disciples felt that way sometimes. One day they were walking down the road and they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest. And so Jesus told them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last and servant of all.”

I wonder what Jesus meant by that. To be the best, do you have to be the worst? Or maybe he just meant that to be the best in his kingdom means not caring if you are the best. It makes me think of my nephew. Last year he joined the cross country team in high school. Cross country is where you run a really long race against 30 or 40 other kids. Well he was running in a race one time when he came upon another boy who had stopped running. He had ran so hard he didn’t think he could go on anymore. Well, my nephew could have kept running. He could have kept on going and felt good about himself because there was one more runner that he had beat. But he didn’t. He stopped, turned around and said to the boy, “Come on, you can do it. I will run with you.” And even though it took him longer to finish the race, my nephew ran with the other boy just to help him finish the race.

I don’t know if my nephew came in last place or not, but he for sure didn’t come in first place. He didn’t even beat his own time, but I think Jesus would have awarded him first place because he was a servant to the other boy. [End Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

For years the editors of Chimes, the student newspaper at Calvin College, published a spoof edition once a year. Sometimes the spoof would be just like another edition of the newspaper. At other times they would spoof different publications. One year they published The Bananer, a spoof of the denomination’s magazine, The Banner. When Roxann and I were at Calvin, they published a spoof edition of the Academic Course Catalogue. In it they note that anyone from the community could audit a course for $15, a 96% reduction of the cost of tuition. “This means,” they wrote, “that over the course of a four-year period, students pay $480 for the knowledge and learning and $23,728 for the credit.”

I don’t suppose I need to tell a room half full of graduate students and professors that our education system in the United States values the practical and pragmatic aspects of education over and above the actual education. What matters is not what a student learns and how their understanding of the world and others is expanded by that knowledge, but only if students can get a good paying job at the end of the day. What matters is not expanding our knowledge of the universe, but if our knowledge can lead to new and profitable innovations in the research park.

We tend to do something similar with Jesus. We tend to think that what really matters when it comes to Jesus is that he died on the cross to save our sins. That is the degree, the document, the deed that determines our future. Faith in Jesus is pragmatic. We believe in order to be saved. We sometimes look upon his life and ministry as if it were all just preliminary stuff he had to go through in order to get to the cross. Sure, maybe his life and ministry are examples for us. We too must be nice to others. We too should help out those who are poor and sick. We too should preach the good news that Jesus died on the cross to save us. Sure, we can learn a thing or two about how God wants us to behave from looking at Jesus, but what is most important is that we are forgiven of our sins because he died on the cross. What is most important is that we have everlasting life, we are redeemed, we are saved by the cross.

Last week I hope we got a sense that the cross goes a bit deeper than that. Last week I hope we got a sense that the cross was more than just a transaction in which an innocent Jesus became the sacrificial lamb in order to pay the price for our sins. Last week we saw that Jesus took on the role of the Suffering Servant from the book of Isaiah. The Suffering Servant is a figure in the second half of Isaiah who undergoes God’s punishment of Israel with and for Israel. In the midst of exile, the Suffering Servant remains faithful and obedient to God. He keeps trusting in God even as Jerusalem lies in ruins and God’s people live as exiles in a foreign land. Through the Suffering Servant, then, God comes to his people to give them words of comfort and hope in the midst of their exile.

Jesus takes on the role of the Suffering Servant not just to explain what he is doing in the event of the cross, but to demonstrate his way of being with Israel throughout his life. Mark highlights the fact that Israel remains in a kind of exile during Jesus’ day right from the beginning of the gospel. Israel remains under the rule of the pagan Romans, but John the Baptist comes and preaches at the river Jordan, at the place where Israel first crossed over into the land of Canaan under Joshua, and supposedly where the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon. Mark characterizes John’s ministry as the prophet who announces the end of Israel’s exile: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way [of return] – a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” Like the Suffering Servant, Jesus’ ministry is a ministry to a people in exile. It is therefore a ministry of faithful obedience and trust in God in the midst of that exile.

The opening line of Mark’s gospel states, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The word gospel means “good news,” but it was often used with regard to royal propaganda. It meant “the official decree of good news.” Mark’s “official decree of good news” is that Jesus is the Christ, the Jewish Messiah. The good news is that the King of Israel has returned. The line of David is about to be restored. That means that the exile is soon to be over.

This, however, sets Jesus in immediate opposition with Caesar, the emperor of Rome. Only Caesar could appoint someone as King over the Jews, and he had, his own puppet, Herod. But just to drive the point home, Mark adds that Jesus is “the Son of God,” for Caesar himself was claimed to be and was worshipped as “the son of god.” It is no surprise then that the nationalistic wing of the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees, soon team up with those leaders who colluded with the Romans, the Herodians. In chapter 3:6 Mark reports, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”

Mark announces right from the beginning that Jesus is the Christ, but with regard to the characters in the gospel, everyone wonders who he is. They ask “Who is this?” (4:41) “What is this? A new teaching and with authority?” (2:27) “Why does this fellow talk like that [and claim to forgive sins]? (2:7) “Where did this man get these things? … Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” Everyone wonders if Jesus is the Messiah. People report to Herod and the disciples tell Jesus that some think he is John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others one of the prophets. Finally Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter affirms, “You are the Christ.”

Of course everyone is asking this question because Jesus is not living up to the expectations of being the Jewish Messiah. He is not a warrior like King David. He has no army. He has not started a rebellion. Instead he has welcomed sinners and tax collectors into his company. He has healed the blind and the lame. He has cast out demons and fed the hungry. He has ministered to both Jew and Gentile. The first half of the gospel answers the question of Jesus identity, but with a twist. He is the Jewish Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God, who has come to redeem God’s people from exile, but God’s people includes the Gentiles, and sinners, and tax-collectors, and maybe even the Pharisees.   Jesus is the Messiah, but he redefines what it means to be the Messiah.

Let me suggest that the second half of Mark’s gospel turns on the question of how Jesus will bring both Jews and Gentiles out of exile. Jesus redefines how the Messiah will fulfill his mission. Last week we read that after Peter proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus began to tell disciples plainly that he must go up to Jerusalem to be betrayed into the hands of the Romans, killed, and be raised on the third day. This morning we read how he told them the same thing a second time. And Jesus tells the disciples this again a third time in 10:32. Now anytime something happens three times in a biblical story we should know it is significant. Jesus, however, doesn’t just tell his disciples about the coming cross to give them advance warning. He tells them that he is going to Jerusalem to be killed in order to show them that this is his way of being with God’s people. This is his way of completing his mission. And so it must be their way of being with others if they wish to follow him. He said it plainly in last week’s passage: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (8:34)

After each of the next two times Jesus predicts his death, he teaches his disciples what the cross means for how they are to be shaped by the cross as they live in the world. In our lesson today the disciples argue about which of them was the greatest. IN verse 35 Jesus sits them down and says, “‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and servant of all.’ He then took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’”

The disciples argue about who is on the top of the totem pole, but they are not simply concerned about which individual is better than all the others. They are concerned about a game of power. Each one wants to make sure he gets the respect and honor he deserves. Some of us were talking the other day about how honor and respect and therefore power is determined by age within many Asian societies. In order to relate to someone properly, you have to know if they are older or younger than you. And, generally speaking, the leader of any group must be someone who is among the oldest in the group.

In Jesus’ day society ran according to a host of patron-client relationships. People with power and prestige handed out favors to those with less power and prestige in return for loyalty and services. The disciples are arguing about where each of them fits within the social ranking of the group. Who deserves to be honored and served by the others, and which one has the power and prestige to hand out favors. My guess is they were arguing about who was closest to Jesus. Should Thomas buddy up to Peter or John in order to curry favor with Jesus?

Jesus, however, turns this system on its head. He says the greatest in the kingdom of God is not the one who stands above others and hands out favors. The greatest is not the one who lends you an air of respectability and social standing. No, the greatest is the last person, the one at the bottom of the social ranking. The greatest is the one who serves everyone and has no power or prestige to hand out favors. If the disciples were to have a dinner party, they would want to invite the most respected people in their community so that they would be seen to be on their social level. Their social ranking would increase even more if they then received an invitation in return to attend a party given by one of these social elites. But Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”  If you want to curry my favor, if you want to get close to me, invite someone to your party with no social standing. Invite someone to your party who is powerless and cannot pay you back.

Our gospel lesson this morning begins with Jesus telling his disciples that the way he is going to fulfill his mission is to give up his power. He is going to submit to the powers of the religious leaders, the powers of Rome, and even the power of death. He does so because sin has to do with power. We sin when we exert our own power over against others. We sin when we seek to trust in our own power instead of in God. But Jesus overcomes sin by submitting to its power and dying so that he can be raised again on the third day. We are saved by the cross because through it Jesus takes on the guilt of our sin and also because Jesus overcomes the power of sin. Jesus plays be the rules of the kingdom rather than by the rules of the world.

Jesus took on the guilt of our sin and overcame the power of sin so that we might come out of exile and back into communion with God. But the world is in many ways still living in exile from God. The world still functions as though being the best and the greatest is what really matters. Nations still struggle to make themselves great. CEO’s run their companies as though profit and beating the competition takes precedent over caring for the environment, paying workers a living wage, and providing the benefits people need for a full life. And individuals continue to be imprisoned by the idols of success and money.

But Jesus frees us from all the power games we are tempted to play in our lives. He frees us from wondering, like the disciples, who among us is the greatest, or who among us is the richest, or who among us is the most brilliant. But he not only frees us from those things, he frees us to live freely for others. Instead of spending our time and energy vying for power and seeking the favor of those who have more power, Jesus invites us to live our lives shaped by his cross. He invites us to use the power we have to serve others. He invites us to use the power we have for the sake of the powerless. He invites us to demonstrate our trust and obedience and hope in the power of God rather than in the powers of this world. We thus come alongside those who have been defeated, or oppressed, or given up in the face of the power games of this world. Like my nephew we stop and run a different race. We walk along with the least of these and so give them comfort and hope as we point them to the cross of Christ. Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him for he took up his cross and gave up his power for us.

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September 16, 2018 Why do bad things happen to mediocre people?
(Isaiah 50; Mark 8:27-38) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] So one of the reasons we come to church is to be with God, right? Well, if God is in heaven, maybe we could get closer to God if we got a little bit higher. [steps up a step ladder] Do you think I am closer to God now? Well, what if I went a little higher? Am I closer to God now? No, because God is already here, isn’t he. We can’t do anything to get closer to make ourselves closer to God because he is already here.

We can’t make ourselves closer to God, but sometimes we think we can do things to make God love us. Sometimes we think that if we obey all God’s commands, that God will love us more. It is sort of like stepping up on a ladder trying to get closer to God. [Steps up] And then we think if we go to church every Sunday and pray every day, God will love us more [steps up]. We sometimes think that we have to make God love us.

But the Apostle Paul said, “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In fact God loved us before we could even do anything. He loved us when we were just little babies. We can’t do anything to make God love us because he loves us already. [End Children’s Sermon]

One day Eleanor Shellstrop wakes up in a waiting room. She is sitting on a couch facing a wall with the message “Welcome! Everything is fine.” She is invited into an office by a gentleman named Michael who sits her down and proceeds to tell her that she has died but that she is in the “Good Place.” Eleanor, however, realizes immediately that she is not supposed to be in the paradise that is the Good Place. While everyone else talks of all the amazingly good things they did on earth, like teach moral philosophy, or open an orphanage in Haiti, she was and remains a completely self-absorbed person. She only acts in her own interest and she refuses to take responsibility or to be responsible for anything.

The show, “The Good Place,” depicts the Good Place as if it were a paradise produced by a computer program designed by Michael, who is called the Architect. The plot revolves around the fact that after Eleanor show up, things start malfunctioning and the Good Place begins to fall apart. Eleanor soon realizes that she is the virus that is causing the whole system to crash. She tries to find a way to fix things without having to reveal that she is not supposed to be there. When a solution presents itself but then falls through she says, “Darn! I was almost handed the perfect solution to all my problems without having to work for it at all, and now it’s gone. Why do bad things always happen to mediocre people?”[1]

It is assumed in the Good Place that we humans merit the judgements we receive. The people who are in the Good Place have all earned their place. Likewise, all the people in the “Bad Place” deserve to be there. No matter how often we preachers preach about the grace of God, this is probably our default mode of thinking. We also believe that God’s judgements reflect what we merit.

Our passage from Isaiah seems to uphold this way of thinking:

Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away? Or to which of my creditors did I sell you? Because of your sins you were sold; because of your transgressions your mother was sent away. (Isaiah 50:12)

The Israelites have received what they deserve. They sinned and so were sent away into exile. They turned away from God, so God turned away from them.

I have been making the case over the past several weeks that our God, the God, is a humble God. I have noted how humility is an essential aspect of the Trinity which exists- Father, Son and Holy Spirit - as a community of love and mutual submission. Two weeks ago we saw how God uses his power in a humble way, not over against others, but for and with them. But when it comes to the judgements of God, when Israel is sent into exile, when God punishes people, is he not using his power over against them? How can I argue that God is a humble God when God seems to be so capricious in his judgment of Israel and of the nations?

Part of the problem is that when we assume that we should merit what we receive, that we should earn our rewards and our punishments, then God can seem to be a capricious, unmerciful, and arrogant judge. We have the same attitude as Eleanor and ask, “Why do bad things happen to mediocre people?” We think that we can’t possibly be bad enough to deserve God’s judgment. We assume that we are at least mediocre, that we at least have been good enough to deserve entry into “The Good Place,” and to receive God’s blessings. So if bad things happen to us, we tend to feel as though we are under God’s judgment, but then we go back on the first premise; we cannot believe that we are judged according to our merit. God must be capricious and arrogant. We conclude that God is a judgmental God, a God who acts over against us, not for and with us. God appears arrogant rather than humble.

We see a different picture of God, however, if we look more closely at our lesson from Isaiah. The first mistake people often make when looking at God’s judgments in the Bible is that they tend to look at God’s judgments in isolation. They forget the larger story. Isaiah, however, reminds us of the larger story right from the beginning. “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away?” he asks. The larger story is that God’s judgement doesn’t come out of the blue but in the context of a relationship with Israel. Israel was God’s chosen people, his bride, with whom he made a covenant of love. God’s relationship with Israel begins not with not God being over against them, but with God acting for and with them. God’s judgement of Israel, first of all, takes place in the context of God’s love for Israel.

This should remind us of why God made his covenant with Israel. In the first place, God entered into this special relationship with Israel not because Israel was the greatest nation, or the most righteous nation, or even for the sake of Israel. God chose Israel for the sake of all the nations, so that through Israel God could bring all the nations to him and bless them. All of God’s actions with Israel, both his saving actions and his judgements, are actions that are for and with humanity. God came to dwell in the temple of Israel in order to be with all of humanity. God’s judgements upon Israel therefore come after his being for and with Israel in order to be for and with humanity. So, second, the purpose of God’s judgements over Israel is so that the nations might learn from Israel’s mistakes.

Third, we should note that Isaiah points out that God has sent Israel into exile not only for her sins, not only because she merits punishment through disobedience, but also because she has failed to trust in God. In verse 2 God says, “When I came, why was there no one? When I called, why was there no one to answer? Was my arm too short to deliver you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you?” God came to Israel, God called to Israel to be with and for her, to rescue her and deliver her. But they did not receive God. They did not trust God. They did not answer.

This leads us to the forth thing we must note about God’s judgments: they are natural consequences of our actions and our failure to trust. Verse 11 serves as a summary or conclusion to verses 1-3, “But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires.” If we trust in ourselves rather than God, we will walk by the light of our own fires. This will lead us away from God and into paths of disobedience. And moving away from God, being away from God, is the essence of God’s judgement against someone. We can’t make ourselves closer to God, or for God love us, but we can ignore his presence and turn away from him and his ways. And so God punishes Israel by sending her into exile. Such judgment is indeed merited by one’s failure to trust in God and by one’s disobedience. If we choose to walk away from God, God may allow us to do so.

But, fifth, such judgment comes only after God’s many attempts to bring us back to him. The nation of Israel, that is the northern 10 tribes, was sent into exile only after hundreds and hundreds of years of idolatry, injustice and of trusting in the power of other nations rather than God. The nation of Judah, the southern 2 tribes, was also sent into exile after seeing what happened to Israel just a few generations later for the same things. Moreover, God’s judgments upon Israel and Judah only come after years and years of God’s patience and long-suffering. Both are sent into exile after dozens of prophets came to them to call them back to God. “When I came, why was there no one? When I called, why was there no answer?”

God’s judgments are not the judgements of a capricious, arrogant, power-hungry god. They are the natural results of our failure to trust in and obey God, and they come in the context of and after many attempts by God for him to be with us and for us. But we prefer to think that we are good enough on our own. We continue to think that mediocre gets us a passing grade. We blind ourselves to the depths of our rebellion and we refuse to see that any path that depends upon us rather than upon God leads us away from God.

But even in the midst of God’s judgment, God seeks to meet us with his grace. Chapter 50 of Isaiah is divided into three parts. The first part, verses 1-3, deals with Judah’s disobedience as we have seen. The second part, verse 5-9, turns to this figure called the Suffering Servant who keeps making appearances in the second half of Isaiah. The third part, verses 10 and 11, provide summaries or a conclusion to each section, verse 10 summarizes 4-9, and 11 summarizes 1-3.

Now Christians immediately assume that the Suffering Servant is Jesus. It is true that Jesus lays claim to this figure, but before we turn to Jesus, we ought to see how and who the Suffering Servant is in the context of Isaiah.  In chapter 42 the Servant is introduced and he seems to be an individual: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold … I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” But in chapter 49 the Servant seems to be the nation of Israel, “He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.’” Isaiah thus speaks of Israel, or maybe a part of Israel, maybe a faithful remnant of Israel, as a single person, just as the prophets often personify unfaithful Israel as an unfaithful wife.

In our text we see the continued faithfulness of this Servant. The Servant seems to be a faithful remnant of Israel through whom God continues to be with his people even in the midst of judgment. I would give the Hebrew Bible, which was largely put together and edited during Israel’s exile as evidence of such a faithful remnant. This results in three more ways in which God’s judgments prove to be the acts not of an arrogant and capricious God, but of a loving, merciful, and humble God. First, in contrast to unfaithful Israel, the Servant is given “a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.” The Servant listens to God. He is teachable. He is obedient, and so through the Servant God’s words of comfort can come to God’s people.

Second, unlike unfaithful Israel, the Servant continues to trust in God. He says in verse 7, “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near.” In the midst of Israel’s exile, the Suffering Servant offers an example of one who continues to trust in God. And so the Suffering Servant offers true hope. In verse 10, the summary, we read, “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God.”  Through the Servant Israel learns that they can trust God even in the midst of God’s judgment, even as they live in exile.

Third, the Servant endures the judgment of God for the sake of others. The Servant lives in solidarity with unfaithful Israel and so endures the abuse that is meted out by Israel’s pagan captors, the Babylonians. “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard.” The vicarious nature of this suffering comes to the fore in chapter 53:4, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” The Servant endures the punishment Israel deserves for the sake of Israel, but in this way also fulfills the calling of Israel. “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant,” God says in 49:6, “to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

In each of these three ways, God continues to act through the Servant in order to act with and for his people and thus all humanity even in the midst of the judgment of Israel’s exile. Through the Servant God speaks words of comfort and encourages his people to return to obedience and to trust. Through the Servant God leads Israel back to her true vocation. God chooses the Servant to bring his salvation not only to Israel but to all the nations. God works through the Servant to demonstrate that there is yet salvation for his people and for all humanity. Judgment is not the end of the story.

In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus thus lays claim to the role of the Suffering Servant. Peter confesses him to be the Christ, by which he means that Jesus is the King of Israel who has returned to bring God’s salvation to Israel and God’s judgment upon the Romans. But Jesus responds by saying that God will not work over against the Romans through him. Rather, he says he must go up to Jerusalem to be betrayed by the religious leaders into the hands of the Romans, that he will be killed, but that he will rise again after the third day. Jesus takes on the role of the Suffering Servant who takes upon himself God’s judgment of Rome, of all the nations, and of unfaithful Israel. But Jesus remains obedient to God and trusting in God even through death so that he might bring Israel and all the nations to God’s salvation.



[1] “The Eternal Shriek.” The Good Place, season 1, episode 7, NBC, October 20, 2016.

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September 9, 2018 Guest preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
September 2, 2018 The Humble God: Divine Power
(Deuteronomy 4:4-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon]

What is your favorite part church? One of my favorite parts of church is after the service when we get to eat snacks. Do you like that part of church? Well one of my favorite snacks is chocolate brownies. Do you know how to make brownies? Well, all you do it add ¼ cup of water, a ½ cup of oil and an egg to some brownie mix and then bake it at 325 for 45 minutes.

So I just told you how to make brownies. Do you think you could go home and do that? No? Maybe? With some help? Well what if we were to make brownies together right now? … So Miss Roxann is going to put that in the oven in the kitchen and she has my permission to get up during the service, even if it is during my sermon, to check and see if they are done, and then we will have some nice warm brownies after the service.

We have been talking the last few weeks about how God made us to be like him.  Jesus came to save us from our sins so that we really could be like God. But God doesn’t just tell us how to be like him, he wants us to become like him by acting like him, by doing things. It is sort of like making brownies. If someone just tells you how to do it, you have an idea of how to do it. But it isn’t until you actually try to make brownies that you actually learn to do it. The Apostle James, he was Jesus’ brother, wrote, “Do not merely listen to the word [of God]. … Do what it says.”

[End of children’s sermon]

Every parent wants for their child to be like them, at least in some ways. I often make blueberry pancakes on Saturday mornings, and when I do, it reminds me of my dad. He made blueberry pancakes every Saturday morning. When my son Evan was young, maybe 6 or 7, he would help me make the pizza dough for the pizza we have every Sunday night. I was tickled that he wanted to help me. For me it seemed like his wanting to help me make the pizza dough was his way of showing that he wanted to be like me. I had hopes that by 8 years old he would be able to mix and knead the dough and then roll it out all by himself. Unfortunately, Evan soon lost interest and I went back to making the pizza dough on my own.

Making pancakes and pizza dough are rather trivial things. What parents really desire is that their children become like them in what they value, in their morals and in who and what they worship. That is what really matters to us, and that is what really matters to God, our heavenly Father.

In our gospel lesson this morning Jesus gets into an argument with the Pharisees over how it is that God wants his children, the Israelites, to be like him. The Pharisees sort of took Leviticus 11:45 as their motto for life: “I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.”

To be holy means to be set apart and marked off as special. Leviticus has rule after rule about how the Israelites and especially priests and those who served in the temple were supposed to keep themselves clean and ritually pure. These laws specify which animals are clean and can be eaten, and which are unclean. They speak about how various things like touching dead person or bleeding or various skin diseases can make a person unclean. These cleanliness laws and “holiness codes,” as they are called, reminded the people that God was holy, set apart, and that they, the Israelites had been called and set apart from all the other nations by God. They were his chosen people.

The Pharisees took all this to heart. They believed that all Israelites should strictly follow not only the cleanliness laws that were meant for all the Israelites, but also the more strict laws that were meant for the priests and Levites. One could say that the Pharisees came up with the idea of the priesthood of all believers. But just to be sure that they were truly holy and set apart, they added an oral tradition, the traditions of the elders, which they accuse Jesus’ disciples of not following.

Now Jesus’ response is interesting. He doesn’t just say, “Your traditions are not actually commanded by God in the scriptures. They are not biblical, so no one has to follow them if they don’t want to.” No. Instead he uses this as an opportunity to teach about the true nature of holiness.

One of the problems that has plagued Christianity and Judaism over the centuries is a distorted understanding of holiness. The Pharisees centered their theology and their practice around the fact that Israel was God’s chosen people. They sought to live up to God’s grace and mercy and love for his people by following God’s laws as best they could and by encouraging their fellow Israelites to do the same. The problem, however, was that they saw that the goal of the law was to set them apart from the Gentiles, from the “unclean,” and from “sinners” and the unrighteous. Their focus, then, was not on becoming like God in how God acted, but in how God was set apart.

The first problem with this is that it is not the law or following the law that makes someone holy. It is God who sets us apart and makes us holy. God gives us the law so that we can then learn to live in God’s ways. The law reminds us of our holiness and leads us into righteous, just and moral living. By following the law in order to make themselves holy or to maintain their separateness, the Pharisees forgot about the real importance of morality, that morality is key to what it means to be holy.

This leads to the second problem. In verses 9 through 13 Jesus points out how the Pharisees concern for holiness and maintaining purity has blinded them to justice and compassion. He rebukes them because according to their code if someone dedicates some money, or maybe the produce from a certain field to the temple, then that can never be taken back. Even if that persons’ parents become sick or destitute, they cannot use that money to help their parents. “Thus,” says Jesus in verse 13, “You nullify the word of God by your tradition.”

This has plagued Christianity over the centuries as well. When Christians have put too much emphasis on being “chosen” by God and upon holiness, upon remaining separate from the “world,” it has inevitably led to injustice. When we emphasize our own holiness and chosenness, we lose our capacity for compassion. Instead of loving our neighbor and the stranger, we vilify them. When Christians have emphasized our holiness and chosenness, it has led to ideologies that set Christians over against people of other religions and it has set some Christian nations even over against other Christian nations. It has become the basis of nationalism, racist ideologies and White Supremacism. When we view ourselves mainly as set apart and chosen, then others become the enemy and we begin to justify the use of force over against them in the name of maintaining our own purity and advancing “God’s cause.”

God, however, did not set Israel apart and make her holy so that she might be over against the other nations. In our lesson from Deuteronomy God says, “Observe [my commandments] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (4:6). Wisdom and understanding, if you recall, demonstrate the fear of the Lord. They demonstrate that a people lives in God’s ways and thus they reveal the nature and character of God. God chose Israel and set her apart so that God might bless the nations through Israel, so that the other nations might come to know who God was and what his ways are by observing Israel.

The apostle James says the same about the Christian church. In verse 18 he says, “[God] chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” The firstfruits were the first crops harvested each year. They were often sacrificed to God as a thank offering because they symbolized that God had been faithful for another year and they were a guarantee that more was to come. Christians are the firstfruits because by redeeming us, God demonstrates that he has been faithful not just to us, but to all humanity. We are thus set apart as a promise that there is more salvation to come, that God’s salvation is for all humanity.

Jesus enters into this argument with the Pharisees because they view holiness as a way in which God’s people are set apart from the nations, which they think of as over against the nations. But Jesus demonstrates in the following stories that he is not only Israel’s Messiah, but the savior of the nations, the savior of the Gentiles. In the next story he casts out a demon from the daughter of a pagan Gentile. He then heals a deaf and mute Gentile in the Gentile region of the Decapolis. He then feeds a mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles of over 4,000 people in the wilderness. Mark highlights the fact that both the feeding of the 5,000 in chapter 6 and the 4,000 in chapter 8 happen in “desert” places, and thus allude to God giving manna to the Israelites in the wilderness. The point is that God acts to feed both Jew and Gentile. Throughout these chapters Jesus acts as the true Israelite through whom God works to bless both Jew and Gentile. The implication is that to be a disciple of Jesus is to become a vessel of God through whom God acts with and for all of humanity.

This, then, brings us back to Jesus’ first critique of the Pharisees’ understanding of holiness. To be holy is to be morally set apart. James says in verse 27 that true religion is “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The Pharisees think this means they must be separate from a certain kind of people, but James equates being separate from the world with looking after “orphans and widows in their distress.” It means to seek justice and love mercy. Jesus also teaches in verse 15 that to be holy means that to be separate from immoral activity. “What comes out of a person is what defiles them … sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” Holiness is therefore about being moral. True religion and holiness is following God’s ways so that others see how good and just and loving and merciful God is. True religion is acting like God in justice and compassion with and for others rather over and against them.

Last week I argued that God is a humble God because he acts not against other but for others and with others. The notion of being God’s chosen, of being the firstfruits, presents us with a fourth type of power: God acts through others. God demonstrates his humility by first investing all humanity with authority and responsibility by making us in his image. He then invests Israel with the responsibility of being a priestly nation through whom he might bless the nations. He then invests the church with the responsibility of being the firstfruits. We are thus called to be set apart from the world in that we act with the same love and compassion that God has towards the world. James calls us not only to listen to the word of God, but to do it. And that means to look after orphans and widows, to seek justice for the poor and the oppressed, to welcome the stranger, and to proclaim in word and deed that Jesus is lord and savior of all people. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

O God, author and giver of all good things,
plant in our hearts the love of your name;
increase in us true religion;
nourish us with all goodness;
and bring forth in us the fruit of good works;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

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August 26, 2018 The Humble God: The Life of God, or Real Food
(John 6:55-69) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I would like to do a little experiment with you. So when I am standing here, you can see me, right? And you can hear me, right? Would you say I am with you? How about if I move here? Can you hear me? Am I with you? But what if I move [goes behind a wall]… here. Can you see me? Can you hear me? Yes. Am I with you?

When someone is with us we can usually see them and here them, can’t we? But someone can be with you, at least in some way, even when you can’t see them. Because you could hear my words, I was still with you in a way. Have you ever talked to anyone on the phone? Maybe a grandparent, or an aunt or an uncle? Maybe they were far away, but by talking with them on the phone they were sort of with you for a while weren’t they.

In the gospel of John Jesus teaches that if we believe in him and if we trust in him, he will remain in us and we will remain in him. That means he will be with us always. But we can’t see Jesus, can we? And we can’t even hear Jesus by talking to him over the phone. But there are other ways Jesus remains with us. He gave us his word, the Bible, that we can read. So when we read the Bible we can hear Jesus. We can pray to Jesus and when we pray we can speak to him and we can listen to him in silence as well. And Jesus also promised to send his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, to us. So if we believe and trust in Jesus I want you to remember that Jesus remains with us by his Word, through prayer and by his Holy Spirit. [end children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Two weeks ago I talked about how we were created to be like God. In Christ, therefore, we are being remade in his image to become more and more like God. Last week I argued that our first step towards becoming like God, however, was to recognize that we are not God. We were made to be like God in some ways, but we were not made to be God. To be like God, we, his creatures must submit ourselves to him, honor him, obey him, and worship him. We must fear him.

Our first step to becoming more like God is a step of humility. Many of you know that during my sabbatical I read and wrote about humility. And so, even if you didn’t realize it, this is now my third sermon in series about humility. Last week we examined an important aspect of humility. Humility involves a submission to something or someone. It often involves a submission to someone greater than oneself. A student demonstrates humility by following the instructions of her teacher. Humility can also come in the form of a submission to an ideal or a cause. The President of the United States should act out of humility after swearing to uphold and protect the constitution of the United States of American. The President thus places himself, or one day herself, under the ideals and the regulations of the constitution. We demonstrate humility through our fear of God. We submit ourselves to the person of God and to the ways of God.

Now it is fitting for our first step in becoming more like God to be a step of humility because our God is a humble God. That may sound kind of odd because there are many acclamations in scripture that praise God for his majesty, his might, his great wisdom, his glory. Psalm 8, for example, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. … When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, … What is humankind that you are mindful of them?” Our temptation is that we want to emulate God and become like God in his power and glory. We want that for ourselves. But what if this glorious and mighty God were also a humble God? What if this God also demonstrated a kind of submissiveness?

In our gospel text this morning in verse 55. Jesus says, “my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” A little later in verse 63 he says, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life.” Later in the book Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and even later he says, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (11:25; 14:6).

So who is the life? Jesus says he lives because of the Father, but that the Spirit gives life, and that he himself is the life. How can this be? How can Jesus be the source of life, yet live because of the Father? What lies behind Jesus’ words is what we call the Trinity. Jesus is the life because as he himself says, he abides in the Father and he and the Father are one. The Spirit gives life because the Spirit is the sent by the Father just as the Father sends the Son. Paul talks about the Spirit in various ways, sometimes within the same sentence. He can call the Spirit the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, or just the Spirit. In some ways Father, Son (or Jesus or Christ), and Spirit are interchangeable. They are all God. They are all in some ways One. But yet the very fact that Jesus refers to the Father and the Spirit means that they are in some ways unique. If there were no difference the Father couldn’t send the Son, nor the Son send the Spirit.

From all this we can say that the source of all being is not just one, but one in three, or three in one. The community of the Trinity is at the source of all being. Mutual give and take is at the source of all being. God is a humble God because in the life of the Trinity there is mutual submission. In our text we see that Jesus is submissive to the Father for he is sent by the Father. But there are other places in scripture where we see even the Father subordinating himself to the Son. Throughout the New Testament Jesus is known as “Lord.” “Jesus is Lord,” was the first Christian confession of faith. In Roman ears this meant that Jesus was Lord and not Caesar, but in Jewish ears it mean something different. Jews never say the name of God, Yahweh, but instead call God, Adonai, which means Lord. When Christians call Jesus Lord, they are calling him Yahweh. Commenting on one of these passages biblical scholar Reinhard Feldmeier says that God hands over the name he has held throughout Israel’s history and takes the name Father for himself.[1]

In Philippians 2:6 (pg. 873) we see perhaps the greatest example of this mutual give and take and mutual submission. Jesus although “in nature God” “made himself nothing,” was “made in human likeness,” and remained “obedient even unto death.” “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” Jesus submitted himself in obedience to the Father, so the Father gives him his own place and his own name so that “every tongue” may “acknowledge Jesus Christ is Lord,” or Yahweh, or God. But Jesus does this “to the glory of the Father.” He gives back the glory he receives. There is mutual submission, mutual give and take, mutual sharing between the Father and the Son

In our passage Jesus is saying that he is the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven because he participates in and is part of the source of life that is Father. But earlier in the passage in verse 40 Jesus says, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”  Jesus looks to the Father as the source of life. The Father points us to Jesus as the source of life.

Jesus takes up this image of the manna given to the Israelites in the wilderness because of the symbolic meaning of the manna. Yes, food is our source of life in a physical sense. But the Israelites learned by eating the bread from heaven, the manna which was sent by God every day, to trust in God. The source of true life is trust in God. Here Jesus is saying that the true bread from heaven, the true source of life, real food, is trusting in him for he and the Father are one.

But there is more, to eat the bread of heaven, to trust in Jesus is to be invited into a relationship that is like the relationships in the Trinity. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them,” says Jesus.  We live as we exist in this loving and humble relationship with Jesus, just as Jesus lives in a loving and humble relationship within the Trinity. Now of course in this relationship we submit ourselves to Jesus, but Jesus, in a sense, also serves us. He is the one who already submitted himself to death for us, but he continues to serve us as our intercessor before the Father and by promising to abide in us if we abide in him.

And this brings us to a second aspect of humility: how one uses power. Feldmeier argues that there are two kinds of power. “There is the power of the devil, which violently subjects the other person to one’s own will, and there is the power of the rule of God, which understands existence as coexistence and hence acts not against the other but for him and with him.”[2]

I might separate this into three kinds of power – power against, power for, and power with.  And so we see Jesus using power for us and with us in this passage. In verse 51 Jesus says “This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.” Jesus goes to the cross, but also rises from the dead for the life of the world. He uses his power to defeat death for us. But Jesus didn’t do this just for us. He did this so that he could be with us, and he did this first by taking on our flesh and blood.

If we want to know and experience what it is to abide in Jesus, I think we need to move from an understanding of how God uses power for us to and an understanding that God also uses power with us. Some may think that God mainly uses power against us. Many view God as a mainly judgmental. Our job is to not mess up, to not sin, and to obey all kinds of rules to keep God from getting angry with us. I hope that we all recognize that God’s main stance toward us is one of love and grace and mercy. He is a God who is for us.

And so maybe our prayers are not so much about God’s power against us, but God’s power for us. We turn to God in prayer mainly in terms of intercession. We ask God for his blessings not only for our benefit, but also for the benefit of others.  In turn, if we ask God to do things for us, we feel we have to pledge ourselves to do things for God. We pledge ourselves to obey him. We seek to do his will. We dedicate ourselves to using our gifts and talents in service to God’s kingdom.

That is all well and good, but Jesus says that if we eat the bread of life we will be in him and he in us. How then do we move from knowing that God is for us, to embracing God with us? In my children’s sermon I mentioned God’s word and prayer. Let’s start with prayer.

At the beginning of our service I have been asking you to review your day or your week to notice the places God has blessed you or others and then to give thanks. But the more we notice and give thanks for what God has done for us and others, the more we will notice that God is not just doing things for us, he is present with us. Move then from noticing what God has done to noting how God has been present. Then the more we take note of his presence with us, the more we will begin to realize that he not only wants us to do things for him and for the Kingdom, but with him. Jesus is in us not just to comfort us and make us feel good, but so that we can fully participate in the life of God and in the mission of God. God and Jesus are not satisfied with us doing things for them, they want us to do things and live with them. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”

But that is not an easy calling. It means that we must, as Jesus says, “eat his flesh and drink his blood.” It means we must give up trying to be our own source of life, our own source of power, our own source of morality. It means we must put our trust solely and fully in him. It means we must fear him. And so we say with many of his disciples in verse 60, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Abiding in Jesus means constantly confronting that part of us that finds this difficult and wants to walk away. We all want and desire to be independent. We all want and desire to determine our lives and our destinies for ourselves. And so in our worship service almost every week, we take time to examine our lives and to admit that there are times and places where we have exerted our own will over against the will of God. We must ask: where have we used our power not for or with others, but violently, through hurtful words or actions, over against others? Where have we acted selfishly? Where have we sought to keep a corner of our lives independent from God? Has it been in how we spend or save our money? Has it been in how we have sought or used power in our relationships with our colleagues? Has it been in how you have treated a friend, or your children, or your parents?

Through our prayer of confession, by confessing our sins and seeking God’s mercy, we come to recognize and confess what Jesus says in verse 63, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life.”  The flesh is that part of us and the world that is opposed to the Kingdom of God and God’s ways. It is that independent streak in us. But when we confess this we confess that Jesus, the Spirit, the Father, that the Triune God, is the only true source of life and that life comes only through the grace of God. “This is why I told you,” Jesus says in verse 65, “that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” Through our confession of sin, we throw ourselves completely on the mercy and grace of God and so we eat the flesh of Jesus for we trust in him for forgiveness and true life.

It is then, however, that we can live our lives not just for God and his kingdom, but with God. In verse 66 we read, “From this time many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer followed him. ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We began this service with a silent prayer of gratitude so that we could become more aware of how God is present with us. We then had a silent prayer of confession so that we could admit our utter need for God’s grace. We then turned to God’s word. Let us now take a few moments of silent prayer and ask, “What has Jesus said to me this morning?” He may have said something in the texts of scripture. It may have been in the sermon. It may have been in the prayers, or the songs we sang or the blessing we have received. How has Jesus been with you through his word this morning?

Silence.

O blessed Trinity,

in whom we know the maker of all things seen and unseen,

the Savior of all both near and far:

By your Spirit enable us so to worship your divine majesty

that with all the company of heaven

we may magnify your glorious name, saying,

Holy, holy, holy. Glory to you, O Lord Most High. Amen.



[1] Reinhard Feldmeier, Power, Service, Humility (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014), 77–79.

[2] Feldmeier, 8.

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August 19, 2018 The Beginning of Wisdom
(Proverbs 9:1-12; Psalm 34:9–14) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] You all know I have been away for a while. Well, while I was on sabbatical I didn’t’ preach once. I didn’t give one children’s sermon for four months, which means I am a little out of practice. So I was wondering if someone else might do the children’s sermon for me this morning. Actually I thought it would be a good idea to kind of reverse things and have the children give the children’s sermon. See? Then it could be a children’s sermon! How about that? Would you all like to give the children’s sermon? No? Why not? How about one of the older children? Or a teenager? Why not? …

Well, aside from the fact that no one else is prepared, I am the pastor and I am the one at least at Hessel Park Church who is expected to give the children’s sermon. I am the pastor and you are not. And I need to know that and b prepared to give a children’s sermon on Sunday. But this morning I am still going to get some help from some children. I have here a poster that Isaak and Mariclare made for Sunday School. It says “God is …” and then all these symbols and words of what God is: Alpha and Omega, or we might say he is the A to Z, he is the Beginning and the End. He is light, and the King, The way, the truth and the life. The Creator. He is Eternal and immortal. He is wise and all knowing. He is all these things.

Now last week we talked about how we were made to be like God. But can we be like all these things? No. We can be loving, but not Love itself. We can be wise, but not all knowing. We have eternal life in Jesus, but there was a time when we were not, so we are not Eternal. And we are certainly not the creator. So there are many ways we can be like God, but then there are also many ways in which we cannot.

You see, while we were created to be like God, the first thing we really need to know is that God is God, and we are not God. The Bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (9:10). Now we think of fear only in the sense of being afraid of something, but in the Bible, fear can also mean to have respect for something, and even to worship something. So the beginning of wisdom, the beginning of becoming like God is not to be afraid of God, but to respect, honor and worship God. And we know this because we don’t need to be afraid of God for he is Love. He is the Creator. He is Compassionate, forgiving and just. He is our shepherd. To fear God is to know that God is God and we are not. [End of children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Many of you know that my parents are what some people call “avid birders.” They are serious birdwatchers. Their goal has been to see 5,000 different species of birds. They have travelled all over the world, from Central and South America, to China, Indonesia, India, and Australia, from Madagascar and South Africa, to Alaska and Newfoundland. They are currently in Brazil floating down the Amazon River. And just the other day they surpassed their goal of 5,000 species.

They chose 5,000 because it was about half of the 10,000 or so known species of birds in the world. It is also a very respectable number to see even among serious birdwatchers. They had to work pretty hard for many years to see this many species. But while I was looking up these facts the other night, I found an article that said that scientists are now rethinking how they divide up species. Under the old way they estimate that there are around 10,000 species of birds in the world. Under the new way, they estimate that there could be over 18,000 and maybe even 20,000 species.

While this may come as really disappointing news to my parents, it probably means that they have actually seen a couple thousands more species than they thought. To me it demonstrates something fascinating about the world we live in. While humans may be amassing more and more information and knowledge about the world, the more we learn about the world, the more we learn that there is even yet more to learn. As scientists learn more about birds, they are learning that the old ways they categorized them didn’t fit with how different populations of birds have evolved and thus formed different species. And I am sure that this is true of every field that is represented in this room, or else you all would be out of a job. The more we learn, the more we find out that there is more to learn.

For some, our growing knowledge of the universe becomes a source of pride and hubris. We tend to put our faith in progress and development and “advancement.” We think we will be able to command more and more of the universe as we come to know more and more about it. We therefore think we will be able to solve all our problems through our knowledge of the world. But the truth is that the more we learn, the more we realize that there so much we do not know. This is a cause not for hubris, but for humility. The more we learn about the universe, the more we ought to be awed by its vast complexity and diversity, but probably also, in some ways, its simplicity. All life that we know of, for example, is carbon based. This, to me, is awe inspiring and thus humbling.

In our text this morning we read that ““The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” For far too long the church has misinterpreted the meaning of fear throughout the Bible. We have taught people that our first and foremost position before God must be one of fear. We must be afraid of God and fear his punishment. And because of this many people have left the church or thought that Christians believe in a sadistic God.

In looking up the etymology of the English word fear, I found that fear is almost always associated with a purely negative feelings of terror. There are some hints that the English word occasionally means to have a sense of awe and respect, but for the most part we associate fear only with potential harm.

But as Christians we should understand “fear” in terms of how the biblical authors used the word. How did they define or re-define fear?  So if we look at this verse we just quoted, we can see that it follows a typical poetic form of Hebrew poetry called parallelism. In this you have two lines that go together and play upon each other. The meaning of each line is shaped by the other. Sometimes the second line repeats the first but this expands and interprets the meaning, and sometimes it says the opposite, which is also expands and interprets the meaning. So in our case the second line repeats and expands the meaning of the first. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” It is obvious that wisdom and understanding are synonyms. They are in parallel in the two lines of the verses. But so are “the fear of the Lord” and “knowledge of the Holy One.” The point of this poetic structure is to encourage us to associate “the fear of the Lord” with “knowledge of the Holy One.” They somehow fit together. Fear is thus not just about being afraid of God. It is about coming to know more about God.

If we turn to our Psalm we see that the fear of the Lord has little to do with being afraid. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:8-14)

Those who fear the Lord are those who are secure in God’s care and have no need of fear. God provides for them. They have tasted and seen that God is good and so they seek to follow God. They turn from evil and do good. They seek peace and pursue it. The fear of the Lord not only has to do not only with getting to know more about God, that he is good, but also getting to know how to be like God.

If we turn to Psalm 25 we can see another example of the “fear of God” being used in the same way. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God.” V. 4: “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”  The Psalmist is not afraid of God but has great trust and hope in God and so desires knowledge of God so he can be like God.

And what does he know of God? V. 8: “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant.”  The Psalmist knows he is a sinner, but he is not afraid for he knows God instructs sinners in his ways. He knows that God is good and upright and loving.

So what about the fear of the Lord? V. 12: “Who, then, is the man that fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.” Here again we see a connection between the fear of the Lord and gaining knowledge of God and his ways. V. 13: “[The one who fears the Lord] will spend his days in prosperity and his descendants will inherit the land. The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.”

We see throughout this psalm a connection between fearing God, having knowledge of God, learning and following his ways, and then the person prospering, or being redeemed from trouble, or forgiven, and so on. Verse 14 sort of sums all this up: “The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.”  The language in verse 13 about land and prosperity is covenantal language. : “[The one who fears the Lord] will spend his days in prosperity and his descendants will inherit the land. God promised Israel the land in his covenant with Abraham. So to fear the Lord is to be welcomed into a covenantal relationship with God that is defined by love and care and grace on God’s part, and devotion and trust and worship on ours. The Psalmist begins the psalm with worship, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God.” To fear the Lord, according to the psalmist, is to trust in, revere, and worship God. To fear the Lord is not to be afraid, but to enter into a relationship of faith and faithfulness with God.

That being said, the Greek and Hebrew words for fear can also mean what we usually mean by fear – to be afraid of harm. One of the most common commands God gives to those he directly encounters or who he encounters through his angels is, “Do not be afraid.” In Genesis 15 God says to Abraham, “Do not be afraid. I am your shield, your very great reward.” In Daniel 10, Daniel sees a messenger of God, or maybe the Son of Man, and he is terrified. But the man says to him, “Do not be afraid.” When the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and then to Mary in Luke 1, he says to them, “Do not be afraid.” When the resurrected Jesus meets his disciples in Matthew 28, he says, “Do not be afraid.” In the book of Revelation when John sees the Son of Man sitting on his throne in all his glory, he falls down as if dead, but the Son of Man places his hand on John and says, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last” (1:17)

When we come face to face with God, we cannot help but be afraid. Fear in this instance is not necessarily fear that this being before us might personally cause us harm or attack us. It is the fear of harm because of the unknown. It is fear that arises from an encounter with something so other than us that we can hardly fathom the difference. Those who encounter God or Jesus or even just an angel of God encounter something so much greater and more powerful than they that they are awestruck and dumbfounded. This fear is the recognition that God is God, and we are not. It is a recognition that the difference in being between God and us is infinite. We can’t help but feel small, insignificant, unworthy and also sinful in the presence of the God who is truly and fully righteous and holy. But when we look at actual encounters with God in the scriptures, God immediately responds to this warranted fear with love and compassion. “Do not be afraid,” he says, inviting us into a covenantal relationship of trust.

Thus we return to the connection between the knowledge of God and the fear of God. The more we come to know God, the more awestruck we will be. The more we come to know of his power and majesty, the more we will respect him. The more we come to know of his justice and his compassion, the more we will honor him and want to follow in his ways. The more we know of his mercy and love, the more we will worship him. The more we fear him, the more we live in awe of him, the more we will trust in him.

So let us close with a little exercise to help us think about God and that God is God and we are not. I look around the room and I see people who are extremely knowledgeable in one field or another – Physics, Mathematics, Ethics, and so on. I see others who have amazing talents and skills – Pianists, Physical therapists, computer experts, a lawyer. Each of you has talents or abilities or knowledge that the person sitting next to you knows little or nothing about. Now think of some colleague you have and about all the things they know about your filed that you don’t know. The point is that whatever we do as humans, whatever we know, we can only master a certain number of things. Even within our field of expertise, we are all limited in our knowledge and skill. We are so finite.

Now think back to the children’s sermon. Just one thing on that poster about God was that he was the creator. Think of all that entails. It entails not only that God knows all the stuff that each of knows, but all the stuff that we realize we don’t know about our field or our practice, and all the stuff that we don’t even know that we don’t know yet. It also means not only that he knows it, but that he designed it. He made it. All. And that is only one aspect of God. We can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the knowledge of God.

The God we worship, my friends, is a God to be in awe of. He is a God to fear. But if we fear him, this God welcomes us into a relationship of love and trust with him so that we can become more and more like him. He invites us into a relationship with him so that we can come to live more in line with the way his is and the way he made the world. And that, my friends, is the definition of wisdom. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silence]

Almighty God, teach us to fear you, so that we may worship you. Teach us to worship you, so that we may come to know you more and more. Teach us to know you, so that we may be like you. Shape us more and more in your image so that we may be wise, live in your ways, and be salt and light in this world. Amen.

 

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August 12, 2018 A Genuine Imitation
(Ephesians 4:17-5:2) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] So I wonder how many of you can play the piano? Adults and teens too, how many of you can play the piano? Even I can play the piano, maybe just the melody line, but that is at least something. But how many of you can play this [holds up a sheet of music]? That looks pretty difficult, doesn’t it? I know I couldn’t play that but I know several of you are much better at playing the piano than me. But maybe you are not accomplished enough to play this. But even if you can’t play all of this, maybe you can play this … [pianist plays the melody]. Or maybe even this … [adds harmony or bass?].  So even if you can’t play this [indicates sheet music and pianist plays the full score], you could still play a version of this piece of music.

This morning in our epistle reading Paul urges the church in Ephesus, which we call Ephesians, he says, “Be imitators of God.”  “Be imitators of God … as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1-2). That seems like a hard thing for us to do? Who of us can really imitate God? Can you be as strong and powerful as God? Can you be as loving as Jesus? Could you sacrifice your life like Jesus did on the cross for us? Paul says earlier in his letter that we are being made new in Christ in order “to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24). Who of us can be perfect and live a life of true righteousness and holiness? Who of us is without sin like Jesus?

Well, maybe you can think of it as being a bit like playing the piano. Living without sin, in true righteousness and holiness, fully imitating God is something like this … [pianist plays full score]. We may not be able to do that or do that perfectly. But maybe we have begun to learn to live like Jesus. Maybe we have begun to be like God. Paul urges the Ephesians not to be angry with each other or fight with each other, but to forgive each other. He tells them not to steal or to lie. Rather he says to be show compassion to each other and to love one another. Now we all know how to be kind and loving, so we can make a start. We can be like this … [pianist plays the melody]. And with the help of the Holy Spirit and by working together as a church, we can all make progress and begin to be more like this … [add harmony / bass]. Paul says if we live together as a church, filled with the Holy Spirit, we will grow and build each other up in love until we become more and more like this [pianist plays full score]. [end children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Have you ever seen a commercial on TV like this? You see a couple sitting at a table in a romantic restaurant. “Imagine a moment of magic.”[1] The woman opens up a small box and something inside sparkles. “Imagine a moment of pride.” The woman nonchalantly holds her hand so her ring just somehow can’t be missed. Her friends whisper in the background, “How can she afford a ring like that?” “Well stop imagining. Enjoy the magic and the pride when you wear the fabulous 5 karat cubic zirconium Princessa Evening Ring. It can be yours for only $9.95. But wait, that’s not all …” How many of you have seen a commercial like this and actually wanted a genuine, cubic zirconium ring?

Cubic zirconia is a synthetic material that is colorless and very durable that is used as an imitation diamond. But to those who care, no matter how beautiful, and brilliant cubic zirconia is, it is just not a diamond. It is a fake, an imposter, an imitation. Philosopher Charles Taylor argues that we live in the age of authenticity. Since we have broken down traditional societies in which children basically grew up into the same roles and jobs as their parents, we have to create our own identities. We have therefore come to prize authenticity. We all must find our true selves, or rather, develop, construct and create our true selves. And it just doesn’t seem to be right if the selves we create are mere imitations of someone else. No one wants to be called a fake or an imposter. The two moral maxims our society seems to be one, that we all must be true to ourselves, and two, we must therefore be tolerant of others.

As a society we value individuality and originality. But what we usually settle for is a cheap imitation that only purports to be an original. We can’t escape this. No one is able to be truly and fully original. We all operate out of a culture we inherit, with a language or languages that shape how we think. And if you look closely at anyone who is trying to be “original” by getting tattoos or piercings or through the clothes they wear, there are numerous other people being “original” in the same way. Perhaps to be truly original or unique we could embrace our dependence on others. The truth is that our identities are a mix of what we receive from others and our own individuality. The way to be truly unique is to become genuine imitations.

You see, we should not disparage imitation because we were made for imitation. God made humans “in the image of God.” Paul’s ethical advice centers on his encouragement for us to imitate God. The only way for us to be real humans is to be genuine imitations of God. Our problem, however, is that we attempt to be fake imitations. Adam and Eve were fake imitations of God. Although they were made in the image of God, although they were made to be like God, their sin was to seek their own way to be like God. By eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they sought the power to determine what is right and what is wrong for themselves. They sought to be gods, and thus false imitations of God. A false imitation denies dependence on the original and seeks to replace the original and be seen as something completely different. A genuine imitation, however, honestly admits dependence upon the original and openly seeks to follow the original. We were made to be genuine imitations of God.

But as I mentioned in the children’s sermon, that almost seems like an impossible task. Who can live in true and untainted righteousness and holiness? Won’t all our efforts be tinged with our attempts to forge our own way? How do we avoid the temptation of Adam and Eve and slip from imitating God to trying to be gods ourselves?

Humility and pride determine the difference between genuine imitation and false imitation. In thinking, reading and writing about humility over the past few months, I came across numerous authors who make the claim that pride is the root of all evil. Pride moved Adam and Eve to seek to become gods. They lacked the humility to remain dependent on God and to be happy imitating God. It takes humility to depend upon another. It takes humility to submit oneself to following in the way of another. Pride seeks independence and its own way. Humility embraces dependence and obedience.

How then are we to become genuine imitations of God? How are we to “put on the new self,” as Paul says, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24).  Well, I think an analogy with music can help us here. Living into our true selves is like learning how to play the piece of music God created for each of us to be. Yes, we all are unique. We are all individuals, but we share a common tradition. We follow common laws and conventions and so on. And in Christ we are all joined into one body through baptism. We all play, and live and work together in and through the church. Together we are an orchestra called to play a particular symphony.

At the beginning of the chapter Paul urges us to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (4:1-2). He then goes off on what seems to be a theological tangent, “There is one body and one Spirit, … one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Paul basically riffs on the Trinity, that God is three in one – one Spirit, one Lord (who is Jesus), one God and Father. At its best, the church displays the same unity, the same harmony, as we find in our triune God.

We will talk more about humility and the Trinity in the next weeks, but theology, how we understand and talk about God and about our relationship with him, is fundamentally important. Theology matters. Think of theology as sort of like the music staff, the treble clef and the bass clef. Theology sort of sets the structure for our life with God. Theology arises out of our shared discussions on the Bible and what we know of God from the creation and from our experience of the Holy Spirit. Theology sets the boundaries and provides a common language for our life together in pursuit of becoming genuine images of God. If our goal, our purpose, our reason for being created and recreated is to be like God, we need theology. We need to know what God is like.

So we have theology, the music staff, but we also have the actual notes. We can think of the notes as the various virtues we are to exhibit in our lives. When the actions and thoughts that we have align with the virtues, then we are living our lives in tune with God’s plan for us. Our actions are the notes we play. When we live according to the virtues, when we speak truthfully, share with those in need, live at peace with others, when we are kind and filled with compassion, then our lives sound in harmony. But when we follow the vices, when we let anger overtake us, when we are bitter, when we lie about or slander others, our lives sound disharmonious. Something just isn’t right. It sounds ugly and possibly offensive. But the virtues guide us to play the right notes.

As members of Christ, we are automatically members of his body, the church. We are therefore not called to be soloists, but to be members in an orchestra. We are each called to play our own part with our own instrument. Each of us is unique yet part of the whole. Earlier in the chapter Paul says, “It was [Christ himself] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (4:11-2). This morning we ordained 2 new elders and a deacon. While we all play a particular instrument, maybe we have a trumpet section, and a violin section. The elders and deacons are then like the lead players of each section. They are called to lead and encourage the whole section to play the best they can play, to “equip them for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up.”

So we have the musical staff, the different instruments and sections all playing different notes but harmoniously together, but only if they all follow the same rhythm. Later in the letter Paul says, “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (5:18-19). The spiritual disciplines and practices of the church set the rhythm of the church and the Christian life. We meet every week for corporate worship. Maybe we meet every other week in a small group. We each have our own times to “practice,” maybe daily or weekly. We pray, read and meditate on scripture, and give of our time and money to support the church and those who are in need. We take one day a week off from work to rest and observe the Sabbath. The rhythms of the spiritual disciplines open us up to the movements of the Holy Spirit and keep us in time with the Spirit of God and Jesus, the director of the orchestra.

Sisters and brothers, let us together “Be imitators of God … as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Jesus showed us the love of God through his life and through his death on the cross, but he also showed us the humility of God – the God who loved us so much he was willing to humble himself and become incarnate so that he could lead us into a life of obedience and faithfulness by dying on a cross for us. So let us seek to follow Christ in love and humility so that we may become genuine imitations of God.

Almighty God, in Christ you came to us in the flesh to teach us, to heal us, to lead us into a life of obedience and to overcome death and sin through his death and resurrection. Fill us with your Spirit that we may put off our old selves and put on our news selves, created to be like you in love and humility. Amen.



[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KK09LxsvOXY

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April 8, 2018 Through August 5
(Pastor Tim on sabbatical leave) There is no audio for this sermon.
April 1, 2018 The Shroud of the Nations
(Isaiah 25:6-9) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I have something for you. I have some heart stickers for you. Know when you see a heart, what does it mean to you? It means love. So if someone gave you a heart sticker, maybe that would mean that they loved you, right? And you could take that sticker and put in on your shirt. Then every time you saw it you would remember that someone who loves you.

Two weeks ago Isaak was baptized. Here at Hessel Park we baptize by putting water from here onto someone’s head.  Now baptism is sort of like a heart sticker. Baptism is a sign, a symbol, that God loves us. But it reminds us that God loves us in very special ways. Baptism reminds us that God adopts us as his children. Baptism reminds us that God washes away our sins. He forgives us. And baptism reminds us that God gives us the Holy Spirit so that we can love him, trust in him and obey him better. In all these ways baptism reminds us that God loves us.  

So I am going to give you each a page of heart stickers. You can then give a sticker to anyone you want so they can look at the sticker and remember that you love them. And so when you come to church, remember to look at the baptismal font and remember that God loves each and every one of us. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

The Lord said through the Prophet Isaiah, “Forget the former things; Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19). Each Sunday during Lent I have begun our service reciting this verse from Isaiah and pouring water into the baptismal font. I have done this to remind us each week of our baptism. I have done this to remind us that our way out of exile and the wilderness is found in Christ. For in baptism we are united with Jesus Christ and so adopted as God’s children, forgiven of our sin, and anointed with the Holy Spirit. In Christ we die with him so we too will be raised with him. God’s love for us in Christ brings us out of exile.

Let’s take a moment and name some of the ways we find ourselves in exile and in the wilderness. When you turn on the news, or open the paper, or look at your facebook feed, what are some of the ways you see people in the world experiencing exile and the wilderness? Refugees, police shootings, mass shootings in schools, the opioid crisis, immigration issues, DACA, talks between the U.S. and North Korea. The list goes on and on. We live in a broken, sinful world. A world crying out for God. Remember all these things and they will become our prayer of God’s people later in the service.

But let’s also think of some of the ways we as individuals experience the wilderness and exile? How are we broken? Where do we see the need for God in our lives? Sickness and disease, mental illness, anxiety, depression, need for employment, struggles with personal sin, broken relationships. We all as individuals also are crying out for God.

Over the season of Lent we have seen how God has brought his people out of exile and through the wilderness to himself. We have seen this through the stories of Abraham and Sarah, the People of Israel at Mount Sinai, and the People of Israel in wandering in the wilderness. We have seen how God has acted in the history of the people of Israel to redeem them. Last week we saw how the story of Israel comes to its fulfillment in the story of Jesus. Jesus acts as the faithful Israelite and fulfills the covenant on behalf of Israel.

In all of this we have found comfort and hope because we have seen the same God acting to bring his people back into relationship with him. Ultimately we see God bringing us to him by coming to us himself in Jesus. In Jesus God came to live with us, teach us, walk with us, heal us, and ultimately to die for us in order to forgive our sins and raise us with Christ into new life. In his book, Power, Service, Humility, New Testament scholar Reinhard Feldmeir argues that “[T]he superior power [of the pagan gods] is regarded as the decisive difference between the divine and the human.”[1] On the other hand, while the God of Israel is known for his great and awesome power, what makes the God of Israel distinct is that he uses his power for the sake of others, and particularly for the benefit of the weak and oppressed. The God of Israel is He who brings low the lofty and raises up the humble. In the biblical story, he uses his power first to create the conditions for life and then to oppose those forces that bring injustice and death and to save those oppressed by the forces of evil and death. God’s power is not a power for the sake of power, but a power that creates and saves.

Feldmeir finds this same dynamic at work in the New Testament in the ministry of Jesus.[2] In Greek the normal word for “miracle” is thaumata.  A miracle in this sense is an act that breaks the laws of nature and causes “admiration of the wonder worker.” Jesus repeatedly shies away from the crowds when they begin to admire him too much for being a wonder worker. Thus, his acts of healing and other demonstrations of power are not called thaumata, works of wonder, but dunameis, acts of power. Jesus’ powerful acts point to the power of God and they demonstrate that in Jesus the reign of God, the Kingdom of God has come. His acts of healing and over nature are acts that bring life to those oppressed by disease and social stigma, and faith to those who doubt. They are acts that bring people out of exile and into the fullness of life. They are Kingdom acts of new creation.

This morning we celebrate the ultimate of these acts of power, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Last week we saw that Jesus acted for Israel, God’s people, in order to act on behalf of all humanity. The prophet Isaiah looks forward to Jesus’ resurrection when he says, “On this mountain [the Lord Almighty] will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:7-8). God overcame death and sin in the person of Jesus so that the resurrection of the One could be a down payment, a guarantee that God will one day overcome the death and sin of all. The resurrection of Jesus demonstrates God’s power to save and to recreate.

In a recent article in The Christian Century, husband and wife, John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, examine the different understandings of Jesus’ resurrection held by the Western Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.[3] If you look at the handout in your bulletins you will see two depictions of the Resurrection. The one on the left represents a typical Western portrayal of the resurrection.[4] Jesus is shown rising from the grave by himself while the guards lay sleeping around the grave.

The picture on the right represents a typical Eastern Orthodox depiction of the resurrection.[5] Here we see Jesus rising up out of the land of the dead, standing over the defeated figure of death. The cross demonstrates the means of Jesus’ victory. You can also see broken chains and the keys of the gates of hades as well. But the Crossans point out that in this depiction Jesus is not alone. He pulls Adam and Eve, the two on the left, out of their graves. On the right you see that Israel is present too in the figures of David and Solomon.

The Crossans argue that the West celebrates an individual resurrection, while the East celebrates a universal resurrection. They argue that the Eastern tradition is more biblical because there is no actual depiction of the event of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament. It happens off stage, so to speak. They argue that the rest of the New Testament teaches a universal resurrection. The point of the resurrection is not the actual fact of Jesus’ resurrection. That’s rather immaterial. Rather, they argue the resurrection of Jesus is a “reality creating metaphor” that has significance for all of humanity. Jesus’ resurrection signifies the metaphorical resurrection of Israel, Adam and Eve, and all their descendants. The resurrection is a symbol, a story, which vindicates the kind of life Jesus lived, a life of love and sacrifice that eschewed violence. The resurrection is thus a “reality creating metaphor” because it leads all of humanity out of our hatred and violence and into more ethical modes of human interaction.

While I don’t agree with the Crossans’ conclusions, I do believe they bring up important differences between the Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity. But these differences call us to embrace the truths found in each tradition. Rather than seeing these as competing traditions, we should see them as traditions that correct and enhance one another.

I agree with the Crossans that Western Christianity has become too individualized. We typically think about resurrection, or our baptism, or any aspect of Christianity in terms of my own personal relationship with God and Jesus. But then we struggle to figure out how this then applies to our life in the world, our work, our relationship with others, to politics, economics, and to society in general.

But if we remember that Jesus acted for Israel on behalf of all humanity, then we see the truth depicted in the Eastern iconography. Christ came to redeem all humanity. His death and resurrection were sufficient to remove the shroud of death that covers all the nations. Christ’s resurrection does vindicate the life and ministry of Jesus. It demonstrates that the life of love and service Christ lived, that his refusal to resort to violence, that his trust in God are the true ways of life. Humans cannot overcome sin and death and violence and hatred by resorting to violence and hatred. They can only be overcome through love and faith in the God of love and the God of life. The God who makes a way in the desert and provides streams in the wilderness. What the Eastern Iconography reminds us is that God resurrected Jesus for the sake of all humanity, but not only for humanity, but also for the world itself. We hope not only for our resurrection as humans, but also for the renewal, the resurrection of the earth.

By starting with the universal we can then move, as God does, to the communal. God calls to himself a people, not mere individuals, to live out of the love and faith of Jesus and into the new life he has promised. The church is that community that has been joined to Christ through faith and baptism to live and speak in such a way to point to Christ and his ways. It is a community that demonstrates a faith that God is the God of creation who acts in the world to overcome evil, sin and death to save humanity. It is a community that knows and believes that Christ came to defeat sin and death and evil for all humanity. It is a community that then announces the good news that Jesus is risen, and thus that Jesus is Lord. We then invite others to join us in this way of faith and life.

We therefore move from the universal, to the communal, to the individual. Attempting to figure out how to apply our faith to the world moves in the wrong direction for it begins with the individual. Rather, we must start with God’s kingdom and figure out how to conform our lives to the world God is making. Our calling is to seek to conform our lives to Christ so that we can be witnesses of the Kingdom, proclaiming in our words and deed the good news that is for all humanity.

The thing is that the good news we proclaim is good news precisely because it actually happened. The resurrection of Jesus vindicates the life and ministry of Jesus only if he actually rose from the dead. The Crossans argue that the Western depiction of the resurrection is not biblical because the Bible doesn’t record anyone actually witnessing the resurrection. The Crossans ignore numerous statements by Peter and Paul that attest to the actual, physical resurrection of Jesus. “We are witnesses,” Peter proclaims in Acts 10:39. Moreover, there are several biblical scenes in which Jesus’ followers encounter a real, bodily, physical Jesus who eats and drinks with them. But this real, physical Jesus is not bound to our physicality. He appears and disappears at will. Walls and doors and tombs present no obstacle to him. In other words, Jesus rose from the dead in the darkness of the tomb, but then probably left the tomb. The stone was moved away from the tomb not to let Jesus out, but to let the women and the disciples in. No one, not even the guards, witnessed the resurrection of Jesus.

The Eastern depiction of the resurrection is a metaphorical depiction because it depicts not the event of the resurrection, but the universal meaning of the resurrection. But the Western depiction of the resurrection is also metaphorical. Jesus rises up out of a coffin. He is not walking out of the tomb. It too points to the meaning of the resurrection: Jesus himself, physically, bodily rose from the dead. It demonstrates that God is the God who acts in history, who creates out of nothing, and who brings life out of death.

Friends, we believe in the God of creation who has acted and continues to act within history. We can place our hope for the future in God because God has acted in the past and he continues to act in the present. We can hope for a time when God will “destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; [when] he will swallow up death forever” because death and sin have already been defeated by the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ resurrection is our guarantee, it is God’s promise to humanity, that he is making a way in the desert towards the new heavens and the new earth. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

<Silence>

God of glory, fill your church with the power

that flows from Christ’s resurrection,

that, in the midst of this broken and sinful world,

it may signal the beginning of a renewed humanity,

risen to new life with Christ,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.

 



[1] Reinhard Feldmeier, Power, Service, Humility (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014), 11.

[2] Feldmeier, 22.

[3] John Dominc Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, “Rising up with Christ,” The Christian Century, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/rising-christ.

[4] The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Piero della Francesca, 1493, Museo Civico, Sansepolcro.

[5] Anastasis, from the Karanlık Kilise (the Dark Church) Cappadocia, Turkey.

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March 25, 2018 The King of the Jews
(Mark 11:1-11; 15:1-15, Philippians 2:5-11 ) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I don’t know if you can see it but I have a little pin on my lapel here. Can anyone see what it is? It is a little golden cross. The letters WSFD are etched into this cross and they stand for the West Saville Fire Department. When my dad was a young boy he lived in a town called West Saville, New York. This cross was his dad’s, my grandfather. My grandpa had this cross because he was the pastor of the church in West Saville and also the chaplain for the West Saville Fire Department. When my grandfather died, my grandmother gave me this pin because I was going to become a pastor just like my grandfather. She told me that every week she had to take the pin out of the suit my grandfather wore the Sunday before and put it on the suit he was going to wear the coming Sunday. So whenever I wear this pin, I think of my grandfather.

I wonder if you have something special that helps you remember someone you love. Maybe you have a favorite toy that your aunt or uncle gave to you. Maybe you have a shirt or a dress that your grandparents gave to you. Maybe you have a doll or a game that your cousin gave to you. Do you have anything like that? So whenever you play with your special toy, or wear your special shirt or dress, you remember whoever gave it to you.

This morning you all marched around waving palm branches. We do that because it helps us remember when Jesus came into Jerusalem. His disciples and all the people along the road grabbed palm branches and sang songs as they walked with Jesus into Jerusalem.

So we wave the palm branches because it helps us remember Jesus, but why do you suppose the people walking into Jerusalem that day waved the palm branches? Well, King Solomon had palm branches carved into the walls of the temple (1 Kings 6:29). The temple was the place that God was present with his people Israel. So the Jewish people saw palm branches as a symbol of God’s presence with them. When they saw Jesus coming into Jerusalem, they hoped that he would be their king, and that mean that God would be with them again. So we too can wave the palm branches not only to remember that day Jesus came into Jerusalem, but also to remember that in Jesus God was and is with us in a very special way. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

On Thursday students from Parkland, Florida, attended an assembly at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southwest Washington, D.C., an urban charter prep school whose students are almost all African American, and from very low income families. They came to invite the Marshall students to join them in their March for Our Lives which was held yesterday in downtown D.C., and drew an estimated 800,000 people. The purpose of the March was to demand that Congress take legislative action that addresses school safety and gun violence.

There are many things that have impressed me and others about these Parkland students.  One thing stood out in this meeting and in some interviews I heard leading up to this event. David Hogg, one of the Parkland students, addressed the assembly and said, “We’ve seen again and again the media focus on school shootings and oftentimes be biased toward white-privileged students. Many of these communities [meaning communities such as Southwest D.C.] are disproportionately affected by gun violence, but they don’t get the same media attention that we do.”[1] The Parkland students are very aware that the high profile, mass school shootings almost always take place in relatively wealthy, white suburbs, but that students who live in many urban areas deal with gun violence on the streets on a more constant basis. At one point one of the Parkland students asked who among the Marshall students had known a friend or relative who had died from gun violence. Dozens of hands shot into the air.

What impressed me was that the Parkland students are not just seeking to get their message heard. They are reaching out to other teens, in other settings, from other contexts. They are using the media attention focused on Parkland to bring to light the violence and fear that many urban teens live with their whole lives. While they marched yesterday for “Our Lives,” they seek to make the “our” bigger than themselves.

The “March for Our Lives” was a deliberate political action. It was a protest march. We probably think of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as just some sort of religious event. Jesus and many Jews from all over the world came to Jerusalem to celebrate a religious feast, the Feast of Passover. In the context of the Roman occupation of Israel, however, the Feast of Passover always had explosively political overtones. During Passover the Jewish people celebrated their liberation from the land of Egypt and slavery. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, Passover piqued their hopes for a Messiah, a savior, someone who would lead Israel in rebellion against the Romans. They longed for the return of the King.

And so Jesus deliberately sets the scene. He tells his disciples to go where they will find a colt for him to ride upon. They find it and bring it back. Jesus mounts it and rides down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. The disciples and the pilgrims walking along the road pick up on the imagery taken from Zechariah 9:9, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.” And so the disciples and the people gather palm branches, wave them in the air and lay them on the ground in front of Jesus as they sing the words of Psalm 118, “Hosanna! Save us! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And to make their hopes clear they sing, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:9-10). The crowds get that Jesus claims to be the King of the Jews.

Now when we look at something that Jesus does, we should always consider it from two perspectives: from a human perspective and from a divine perspective. For we believe that Jesus was God made flesh, both human and divine. So we have to ask what is Jesus doing in this story as a human, and what is Jesus doing in this story as God.

The first thing that Jesus does as a human is to stage a non-violent, or rather an anti-violence, protest. Like the students marching on Washington, Jesus is rejecting the weapons of war. He rides into Jerusalem as a King not on a warhorse, but on a colt, and not the colt of a horse, but the colt of a donkey. He rides into Jerusalem, in other words, not as a conquering warrior, but as a servant. Jesus, the King, the Messiah, will overcome the violent oppression of Rome not with a sword, but with humble service. Zechariah 9:10 reads, “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He [that is the coming King] will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Zechariah prophesied that God would bring peace and justice through the coming King of the Jews, but not by breaking the weapons of Babylon, or of Rome, not by breaking the weapons of the oppressors, but by breaking the weapons of the oppressed. God brings peace by breaking the weapons we rely upon rather than relying upon God.

And so as the King of the Jews Jesus ends up standing before Pilate. He refuses to answer to the insults, the accusations, and the beatings he receives. He admits that he is the King of the Jews and so receives the sentence pronounced over him by the crowds, “Crucify him.” The same crowds, mind you, who hailed him as the son of David just a week before. The irony is that the crowds probably turn on Jesus because he fails to take up arms against the Romans. He used a non-violent, anti-violence image to indicate to them that he was in deed the Messiah, but when he fails to lead a rebellion, they view him as a failed Messiah and clamor for him to be crucified.

Over the past several weeks we have been thinking about how God brings us out of our exile and the wilderness and back into communion with him. Several times in the past few weeks we have seen how God has done this by working with covenants. He made a covenant with Abraham, promising to be his God and calling Abraham to worship him simply because he is God. He made a covenant with Israel, promising to be their God and calling them to live in obedience to him as an example to the nations of what life in communion with God could be like. Last week we heard that God promised to make a new covenant with his people. We saw that through the Holy Spirit God would “put the law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Ezekiel 31:33).

The second thing Jesus does as a human is to fulfill another aspect of the new covenant.  As the King of the Jews Jesus represents God’s people. He thus fulfills the covenant on behalf of God’s people. Jesus does for Israel what Israel kept failing to do. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, argues that the Bible is one long story of God speaking to humans and humans responding to God. “Here, in the story of Jesus,” he writes, “is the story in which we see what an unequivocal obedience and love look like. Here is the story where we see a response to God so full of integrity, so whole, that it reflects the act of God that draws it out.”[2]  “See,” the prophet says, “your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation.” God now puts his law in our minds and writes it in our hearts because in Jesus Israel has finally obeyed him fully and completely. In Christ we stand before God as those who are righteous and so God, through the Holy Spirit, begins to transform our hearts so that we willingly follow him.

So as a human, as the King of the Jews, Jesus first breaks the violence of human beings and our reliance upon our own strength. In other words he breaks our rebellion against God. Second, he leads us back into full obedience to God so that we may obey God fully. And third, as a human being, Jesus trusts God fully. As the King of the Jews, Jesus places his whole life into the hands of God, and though innocent, submits to the punishment of the cross. In this way Jesus brings salvation for he becomes our sacrificial lamb. On the night of the Passover Mark tells us that

Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (Mark 14:22-24).

Jesus is the innocent one who is sacrificed for the sins of the guilty. And his sacrifice is accepted because he is full of faith and fully faithful. He trusts and obeys God fully. And so when Jesus dies, the curtain in the temple in front of the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence dwelled with his people, is torn in two. The barrier that separated humanity from God is ripped apart. Jesus’ sacrifice brings Israel out of exile and back into communion with God.

Jesus does all that as a human, as the King of the Jews, but we must also remember that Jesus acts not only as a human, but as God. As I mentioned in my children’s sermon, the palm branches the people waved as Jesus road into Jerusalem reminded them of God’s presence with them in the temple. The people of Israel looked to the return of their King not only as the time when Israel would be freed from her oppressors, but also as the time when God himself would return to them. In Zechariah’s prophecy, after the return of the king riding on a colt in 9:9, verse 14 reads, “Then the Lord will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning, the Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south.” Jesus not only brings Israel to God, but God to Israel for he himself is God.

The Apostle Paul puts God’s movement towards humans in Jesus like this:

[Jesus], being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

And so Jesus came not only to bring Israel to God and God to Israel, but humanity to God and God to humanity. If Israel claimed God to be “our God,” God comes to Israel in Jesus to expand the “our” to include people from every tribe and tongue. What Jesus did for Israel, he did for all humanity. And God comes to Israel through Jesus in order to come to all humanity. And so Paul concludes:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

Of course Paul quotes this beautiful hymn to Christ because he desires the church in Philippi and us to live in a certain way. “Your attitude,” he writes, “should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (2:5). In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

We praise you, O God,

for your redemption of the world through Jesus Christ.

Today he entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph

and was proclaimed Messiah and king

by those who spread garments and branches along his way.

Let these branches be signs of his victory,

That he has ended humanities exile from God

and brought God into communion with us.

Grant that we who carry them

may follow him in the way of the cross,

that, dying and rising with him, we may bear witness to his coming kingdom;

through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.



[1] Marissa J. Lang, “Parkland, D.C. Students Make Plea for Tougher Gun Laws ahead of March for Our Lives,” Washington Post, March 22, 2018, sec. Local, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/parkland-dc-students-make-plea-for-tougher-gun-laws-ahead-of-march-for-our-lives/2018/03/22/66c79c5c-2df8-11e8-8ad6-fbc50284fce8_story.html.

[2] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, First Edition edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2014), 35.

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